Pope Francis celebrated the Way of the Cross last night at Copacobana beach with more than a million people.
During his address after the 14th station, the pope called the Way of the Cross “one of the most intense moments of World Youth Day” and he invited participants to “bring to Christ’s Cross our joys, our sufferings and our failures.”
During the dramatic re-enactment of the passion of Christ, the WYD Cross was carried by representatives from each of the five continents to 14 stations set up along a mile stretch of Rio’s Atlantic Avenue next to the beach.
Pilgrims lined the street near each station, where they had waited for hours for Pope Francis to pass by at the start of the event. Most pilgrims watched the performance on 15 large screens along Copacabana beach.
Pope Francis spoke of how the WYD Cross has “steeped” in the lives of the people who have hosted it in cities throughout the world.
“No one can approach and touch the Cross of Jesus without leaving something of himself or herself there, and without bringing something of the Cross of Jesus into his or her own life,” he said.
The Bishop of Rome asked the young people three questions: What have they left on the Cross? What has the Cross of Jesus left for them? What does the Cross teach them? Then he spoke about each question.
“Jesus, with his Cross, walks with us and takes upon himself our fears, our problems, and our sufferings, even those which are deepest and most painful,” said Francis, signaling that all sufferings can be left on the Cross.
The Pope listed several particular groups of people to which Jesus, on the Cross especially unites himself. Victims of violence, broken and troubled families, the hungry, those persecuted for their religion or race, young people disillusioned by the corruption they see in political institutions, and young people who have lost faith in the Church because of scandal or counter-witnesses were among those he named.
And as for what the cross can leave us, Francis spoke of the “a treasure that no one else can give: the certainty of the unshakable love which God has for us.”
This encounter of the love of God in the Cross, the pope said, teaches “us always to always look upon others with mercy and tenderness, especially those who suffer, who are in need of help, who need a word or a concrete action which requires us to step outside ourselves to meet them and to extend a hand to them.”
Throughout the week, pilgrims have been aware of the cross—whether speaking of the challenges of transportation and rain or talking more generally about the difficulties they face in life.
Feliciano Castaneda, 17, from San Francisco, Calif., traveled to his first World Youth Day with six people from the Oakland diocese.
“Here there are people from all over the world, who come to follow the cross. It is the cross we are following,” he said.
Speaking of the power of World Youth Day experience, Castaneda said, “I’m at an age where you sort of drift away [from faith] but this is bringing me back into it. It’s an interesting way to bring you back in.”
Colleen Quinn, who spent the last year doing mission work in Denver, Colorado, said, “I’m still pretty new in my conversion. I’m still trying to learn how to evangelize to friends and family.” But she is determined and said if God puts challenges in front of her she won’t say no to him. “I’ll take it for what it is and really push to the end. All I can really think of is pleasing God…and I hope one day I will see the fruits of that.”
So far she has seen some obstacles in Rio. Leaving the papal reception on Thursday her group got lost. They weren’t in a very good neighborhood and were yelled by locals. But Quinn didn’t let it shake her, “What I have learned this year is to suffer with joy. Last night was a testament to that.”
Her aim has been “to be loving and charitable at the toughest of times — even when you’re a mile and a half from your hotel at eleven o’clock at night.”
For Michelle Stapperfenne, 29, from the Archdiocese of Newark it’s been a year of crosses. She has come to World Youth Day with the hope that God will speak to her heart.
“I was reading something about pilgrimages and it’s not a vacation,” she said. “It’s a call to take up the cross and follow Christ.”
Sitting on the floor in a packed church, while the rain poured outside, Stapperfenne described how crosses become bearable when they are shared with community. Then you can “finding joy” in difficult circumstances, instead of becoming isolated, she said.
When bringing faith back to friends at home who are far from the Church, Stapperfenne said she hopes to encourage them: “Remember the mercy of God. It’s not us reaching up to him, but it’s him reaching down to us. Just bear your heart to him…Just say simply I am here Lord.”
Jeanette De Melo is the Register's editor in chief. She writes from Rio.