Rome’s ancient Colosseum before Pope Francis leads the Good Friday Way of the Cross (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In his Message for Lent, Pope Francis warns of a growing problem which we as Christians need to confront – a selfish attitude of indifference to one another and to God which has taken on global proportions.
Our Redeemer who gave himself on the cross is not indifferent to the human condition and neither can we be. Our Holy Father reminds us in his message that we are one – “Whoever is of Christ, belongs to one body, and in him we cannot be indifferent to one another. ‘If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26).”
In reading this passage, our suffering Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East and Africa immediately come to mind. The oppression and violence in those regions persist with news of people being beheaded, crucified, set on fire, raped, sold into slavery, and kidnapped, while their churches have been desecrated and destroyed. In recent months, many Christians have had to flee their homes, stripped of everything they own but the clothes on their back – and their faith in Christ.
In a very real sense, our Christian family is enduring the via crucis – the Way of the Cross. Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham notes in his Lenten message that Christians in the Middle East “are in the fifth year of the Way of the Cross.” Meanwhile, like Mary at the foot of the cross, we suffer with them.
After Islamic extremists recently beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya, Pope Francis said, “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard.” Throughout history, the ally of atrocities has been silence. We must not remain silent. All of us must raise our voices, to say this is wrong and something must be done to stop it.
In addition to appealing to people’s consciences, we must also offer our prayers and spiritual support for suffering Christians around the world. Another way we can assist our brothers and sisters in need is through our support of Catholic Relief Services and other organizations that are providing humanitarian relief in the form of food, clothing, shelter and other material help.
Two years ago on Good Friday, newly-elected Pope Francis led his first Way of the Cross at the Colosseum. Showing prayerful solidarity with Christians facing persecution, the meditations were composed by Lebanese young people under the guidance of Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, the Maronite Catholic patriarch.
I invite you now to join in those meditations, keeping in mind the Christian people of the Middle East and parts of Africa. Just as we do at every Stations of the Cross, these young people prayerfully reflected on Jesus being condemned to death, taking up his cross, falling for the first time, and meeting his beloved mother as he climbed Mount Calvary. They prayed that like Simon of Cyrene, they could help Jesus carry his cross and share his sufferings, “because you are carrying it with us, because you triumphed over death for us.”
Reflecting on the sixth station, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, the young people noted that “Veronica reminds us that you are present in every person who suffers.” At the seventh station, Jesus falls for the second time, we pray with them, “Come Holy Spirit, to console and strengthen Christians, especially those from the Middle East, so that, united in Christ, they may be witnesses of your universal love, in an area torn apart by injustice and conflicts.”
The eighth station, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, reminds us that, like those women who wept for Jesus, “our world is full of afflicted mothers” who have experienced injustice and suffering.
After reflecting on Jesus falling for the third time under the weight of the cross, these young people then meditated on the 10th station, Jesus is stripped of his garments, praying with our Holy Father, “Bestow, Lord, upon the children of the Eastern Churches – stripped by various difficulties, sometimes to the point of persecution, and weakened by emigration – the courage to remain in their countries to proclaim the Good News.”
The youth who offered these meditations next reflected on Jesus dying and then being taken down from the cross. They prayed that those fleeing wars and violence might return home, and that “the blood of the innocent victims may be the seed” of a new “more fraternal, peaceful and just” Middle East, a region that might “recover the splendor of its vocation as the cradle of civilization and of spiritual and human values.”
At the 14th station, Jesus is laid in the tomb. But we know that this is not the end, and so we pray with the young people that we be “children of the light who do not fear the darkness,” and that all who have lost hope may find faith in Jesus’ victory over sin and death.
During this upcoming Holy Week and Good Friday of 2015, as we remember Jesus’ Way of the Cross, let us also prayerfully remember the Christians in the Middle East and Africa, our brothers and sisters, and let us walk and stand with them in solidarity.