Take up your Cross, let not its weight Fill your weak spirit with vain alarm;
His strength shall bear your spirit up, Shall brace your heart and nerve your arm.
(Charles William Everest, hymn adapted by Anthony G. Petti)
Few who saw it will ever forget it. On rare occasions a simple action becomes a perfect symbol, capturing the essence of a man or a moment. Good Friday in St. Peter's Basilica was one such occasion. During the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, a large wooden crucifix was placed before the papal altar of St. Peter's for veneration. After intoning three times the Ecce lignum Crucis (Behold, the wood of the Cross) behind the crucifix, Pope John Paul II slowly made his way around to the front of the crucifix, to lead the faithful in veneration. And then … he genuflected.
Growing frailty has made genuflecting very difficult for the Holy Father. Usually it is only required at the altar, e.g., after the consecration, and he is able to hold on to the altar for support. But to genuflect without any support is an altogether different thing.
After raising his stooped head to gaze on the crucified Christ, he began to go down on one knee, ever so slowly. Carefully keeping his balance, he lowered himself closer to the ground, until unable to support himself any longer, he dropped down on one knee.
After pausing a moment in veneration, the Holy Father attempted to raise himself. In need of support, he reached out to the only thing within his grasp: the Cross. Clasping the vertical beam of the Cross, first with one hand, and then the other, he pulled himself back up.
It was tremendously moving. Words fail to describe the sight of the Vicar of Christ grasping the wood of the Cross for help. The lesson that John Paul II is teaching with his frailty was never more clear.
When the Holy Father broke his hip five years ago, he said simply, “The Pope must suffer.” In a world terribly afraid of suffering and the frailty of a beckoning mortality, the Holy Father's suffering and physical decline are a powerful witness. It is not possible for the world's most photographed man to hide his weakness without hiding himself altogether. He will not do that. He is not too proud to show himself as he is, for he trusts in God's will. Nearly four years ago, on his seventy-fifth birthday, he recommitted himself to his Petrine ministry, and said that he would leave it to the Lord to determine the timing and circumstances of how he would complete that ministry.
George Weigel, a papal biographer, has observed that the aged John Paul is a more compelling public figure than the young and vigorous one of years past. Perhaps that is so because weakness manifests virtues that can be hidden by strength. The Holy Father's veneration of the Cross this year illustrated his piety, courage and humility in a way that was not possible when he could lift the cross aloft as a standard, rather than lean upon it for support.
John Paul II is in the evening of his life. After twenty years of unprecedented activity, no one would judge him harshly if he retreated to the papal residence to conserve his energy for the Jubilee of the Year 2000. Yet he daily empties himself in making himself available to his flock.
Every morning he allows people to attend his private Mass and greets them afterward. He continues his audiences, both on Wednesdays for the thousands who come each week, and daily for various groups. This past Lent he visited a different Roman parish every Sunday, as he does many Sundays throughout the year. He is preparing to preside over the Synod of Bishops for Europe, even as he did last year for Asia and for Oceania, and the year before for America. Teaching documents continue to be written. And he is preparing for trips to Romania next month, for a twenty-city tour of Poland in June, and perhaps the Holy Land next year. The fact that his current schedule is no longer as full as it was is a sign not of laxity, but of the truly astonishing schedule he used keep.
When Karol Wojtyla was a young seminarian, he thought about joining the Carmelites. He writes of that decision in his autobiography, Gift and Mystery: “My uncertainties were resolved by the Archbishop, Cardinal Sapieha, who in his typical manner said tersely: ‘First you have to finish what you have begun.’ And that is what happened.”
Karol Wojtyla could not have known that finishing what he had begun would take him to the Cross in St. Peter's Basilica all these years later. But that is what happened. It happened because he was obedient all those years ago to his archbishop, and now, out of continuing obedience to the mission that Christ gave to St. Peter first, and subsequently to him on October 16, 1978.
What Karol Wojtyla probably knew then, and certainly knows better now, is that perseverance in the Christian life must embrace the Cross, even as he did so graphically last Good Friday.
“To accept the Gospel's demands means to affirm all of our humanity, to see in it the beauty desired by God, while at the same time recognizing, in the light of the power of God Himself, our weaknesses,” he wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. ”It is very important to cross the threshold of hope, not to stop before it, but to let oneself be led. I believe that the great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid had this in mind when he expressed the ultimate meaning of the Christian life in these words: ‘Not with the Cross of the Savior behind you, but with your own cross behind the Savior.’”/p>
And when that personal cross becomes too heavy, then it is time to reach out to the Cross of Christ ahead of you, to grasp it, and to hoist yourself up. That was the lesson the Holy Father taught — a priest in adoration of the sacrifice of the one High Priest — on Good Friday at St. Peter's.
Raymond de Souza, a seminarian, writes from Rome.