Pope Francis presided at the Stations of the Cross held in an empty St. Peter’s Square on Friday because of the coronavirus outbreak and listened as both prisoners and their victims recounted their sorrows.
It marked the first time the procession, commemorating the last hours in Jesus’ life, was not held at Rome’s ancient Colosseum since the modern-day tradition was re-introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Pope Francis watched from under a canopy on the steps of the basilica as 10 people — half from the Italian prison system and half from the Vatican’s health services — carried a cross and flaming torches towards him. The Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported that two medical professionals leading the battle against the new coronavirus in Rome were among those carrying the cross.
Speakers read meditations as the group stopped 14 times to mark each of the Stations of the Cross starting with the first when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate to the last when he was buried in a tomb.
Prior to the event, the pope sent a message to the faithful of the parish of the “Due Palazzi” Detention Centre in Padua, northern Italy, who helped organize the meditations and the prayers and thanked them for “sharing a piece of your history” with him.
“I have read the meditations for the Via Crucis that you have all given together. I dwelt amid your words and felt at welcomed, at home,” the pope wrote.
“Thank you for sharing a piece of your history with me. God tells of Himself and speaks to us in a story; He invites us to listen attentively and mercifully.”
The meditations are written by different groups each year and this time they were penned by prisoners, including a murderer and prison guards, chaplains, and family members of both prisoners and victims.
“I committed an evil immensely greater than any of those that I had received,” said the meditation written by the murderer.
The meditation written by the parents of a murdered girl said “our condemnation to suffering will never end.”
Pope Francis has often brought attention to the problems of prisoners, including overcrowding, and more recently he has expressed concern that the coronavirus would spread unchecked in jails.
“I became a grandfather in prison. I didn’t experience my daughter’s pregnancy. One day, I will tell my granddaughter the story of only the goodness I have found and not the evil I have done,” read another meditation.
The participants prayed before a wooden crucifix which is normally kept in a Rome church and brought to the Vatican for the special service. According to tradition, a plague that hit Rome in 1522 began subsiding after the crucifix was taken around the streets of the Italian capital for 16 days in 1522.
At the conclusion of the Stations, CNA reported that the pope offered a short prayer. “O God, eternal light and day without sunset, fill with your goods those who devote themselves to your praise and the service of those who suffer, in the countless places of humanity’s sorrow,” the pope said. “Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
An empty St. Peter’s Basilica
Earlier on Friday, the pope prostrated himself on the floor of an empty St. Peter’s Basilica at a “Passion of the Lord” service — one of the rare times when the pope does not deliver a homily, leaving it to Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household.
Father Cantalamessa said the pandemic, which has killed nearly 19,000 people in Italy, should be a spur for people to appreciate what really matters in life.
“Let us not allow so much pain, so many deaths, and so much heroic engagement on the part of health workers to have been in vain. Returning to the way things were is the ‘recession’ we should fear the most,” he said.