A “War Passover”: A Journal of Holy Week from Rome
Pope Francis holds a candle as he attends the Easter Vigil celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on April 16. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Rome- Easter joy was already palpable a week earlier in the Eternal City, when on Palm Sunday some 65,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square. The April 10 liturgy celebrating Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem also marked the first public Mass to be held in the square in three years due to the pandemic.
On Easter Sunday, that number rose to 100,000, with the pope and pilgrims visibly rejoicing in the return of tradition. The same goes for this reporter covering his first Holy Week in Rome since becoming NCR’s Vatican correspondent in September 2021.
Before Palm Sunday, one of the last major events to take place in the square was the extraordinary Urbi and orbi (“to the city and the world”) message from March 27, 2020. There, in one of the most iconic scenes of his papacy, Francis stood alone under dark skies and pouring rain and pleaded with God to end to the global pandemic.
Popes usually give their Urbi and orbi blessings only immediately after their election and at Christmas and Easter.
This year, on Easter Sunday, two years after that stormy evening in March, Francis soberly took stock of what has happened since then. Rather than emerging from the pandemic “hand in hand, pooling our strengths and resources,” the world, he said, chose to embrace the spirit of Cain, “who saw Abel not as a brother, but as a rival, and thought of how to eliminate him.”
This year, he said, is an “Easter of war”.
Indeed, the shadow of war against Ukraine loomed over Holy Week festivities in the Vatican, both deliberately and unintentionally.
Ukrainian nurse Iryna and Russian nursing student Albina hold a cross at the 13th station as Pope Francis leads the Stations of the Cross in front of the Colosseum in Rome on April 15. (CNS/Vatican Media)
Throughout the week, Francis intentionally drew comparisons between the suffering caused by war and that of the passion of Christ. In a pointed homily on Palm Sunday, he mentioned that “Christ is crucified once more” in the “madness of war”. Francis made similar references throughout the triduum liturgies.
But while the Vatican has sought to highlight its concern over the war, it has also succeeded in overshadowing those efforts through a controversy that erupted at the start of Holy Week, when the Vatican announced that a Ukrainian and a Russian would jointly carry the cross during the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday.
There was an immediate reaction, including from the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church and Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican, saying the gesture did not properly reflect Russia’s aggression. against Ukraine.
In the end, a Ukrainian nurse, Iryna, and a Russian nursing student, Albina, who are friends, carried the cross to the 13th station, where Jesus dies on the cross, but the original meditation was abandoned.
“In the face of death, silence speaks louder than words,” reads the revised meditation that evening. “Let us pause in prayerful silence and each pray in their hearts for world peace.”
While close allies of Francis sought to defend Russian and Ukrainian appearing together as a sign of hope and reconciliation and a refusal of war, other observers saw it as further proof of the limits of the diplomatic strategy of the Holy See vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine.
François also had his own Via Crucis during this holy week, when the state of health of the 85-year-old man was the subject of many concerns. Since Francis was forced to cancel a day trip to Florence, Italy in late February due to severe knee pain, his limited mobility has continued to be evident in his public appearances.
On Palm Sunday, rather than taking part in the spectacular procession around the obelisk from St. Peter’s Square and up to the altar, the pope was simply driven in a vehicle before mass began. On Good Friday, the pope treated the main nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, but did not bow down to the cross, as is tradition during the service.
The next day, Francis chose not to preside over the Easter Vigil, but still gave the homily and baptized seven people. On Easter Sunday, the pope appeared in fine form as he rode the popemobile through a packed St. Peter’s Square, but was forced to sit down midway through his remarks, evidently due to knee pain.
To be clear: this is a particularly different scenario from the slow and steady decline in Pope John Paul II’s health that began in the 1990s and continued until his death in 2005. Indeed , in 1995, the Polish pope had already undergone a number of operations, experienced two falls, and had to cut short his 1995 Christmas Day message due to dizziness, saying “I can’t go on.”
But Francis’ very obvious difficulty in walking, especially when it comes to going up or down stairs, raises serious questions about how he will be able to undertake his likely trips in the next six months to Lebanon, the Democratic Republic from Congo, South Sudan, Canada and Kazakhstan.
Although this is a pope who seems determined to “keep going,” there is no doubt that his public ministry might look a little different or need to be changed in the future.
We, the journalists who cover the pope, are lucky to have a front row seat: whether it’s being among the few people allowed inside the Colosseum in Rome to have a bird’s eye view of the Via Crucis or at the top of Bernini’s colonnade overlooking St. Peter’s Square. From there we follow his every word and every painful movement.
After three long years since the last Easter service in the square, this year’s public celebrations marking Christ’s resurrection from the dead after three days have taken on a special symbolism.
And as they offered much needed good tidings to both Urbi and orbito the city and to the world, on this “Easter of war”, it has also served as a reminder of the challenges of peace – and those facing one of its main messengers.
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