VATICAN CITY — Providence has given us a suffering Pope to lead the Church into a new millennium, and nowhere was that more evident in the Jubilee Year than on the day commemorating Christ's great suffering.
Pope John Paul II led an intensely personal Stations of the Cross on Good Friday last year at the Colosseum, the site of early Christian martyrdoms.
Using special meditations he wrote himself — that are now being made available in book form by the Daughters of St. Paul — the Holy Father walked unaided through the entire Way of the Cross, despite great difficulty. He even climbed a long set of stairs to the final station, carrying a large wooden cross all the way.
“We believe that every step of the condemned Christ, every action and every word, as well as everything felt and done by those who took part in this tragic drama, continues to speak to us,” said the Pope in his opening prayer. “In his suffering and death, too, Christ reveals to us the truth about God and man.”
His meditations on the suffering of Christ raised some of the main streams of his thought, from the Second Vatican Council to his own encyclicals, putting them in the context of Christ's redemptive act.
What follows are short excerpts from the official English-language translation of the Italian text.
Jesus is condemned to death
The tragedy of Pilate is hidden in the question: What is truth? This was no philosophical question about the nature of truth, but an existential question about his own relationship with truth. It was an attempt to escape from the voice of conscience, which was pressing him to acknowledge the truth and follow it. When someone refuses to be guided by truth he is ultimately ready even to condemn an innocent person to death. … Over the centuries the denial of truth has spawned suffering and death. It is the innocent who pay the price of human hypocrisy.
Jesus takes up his cross
God is love… This truth about God was revealed in the Cross. Could it not have been revealed in some other way? Perhaps. But God chose the Cross. The Cross is the sign of a love without limits.
Jesus falls the first time
Jesus falls and gets up again. In this way, the Redeemer of the world addresses in a wordless way all those who fall. He exhorts them to get up again.
Jesus meets his Mother
Mary remembered that, when she first heard the Angel's message, she had replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” … Now she sees that her word is being fulfilled as the word of the Cross. Because she is a mother, Mary suffers deeply. But she answers now as she had answered then, at the Annunciation. In this way, as a mother would, she embraces the cross together with the divine Condemned One.
Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his Cross
The divine Condemned One is someone who, in a certain sense, “makes a gift” of his Cross. Was it not he who said: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”? Simon receives a gift. He has become worthy of it. … In a unique way, the Son of God has made him a sharer in his work of salvation.
Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
The veil upon which the face of Christ remains imprinted becomes a message for us. In a certain sense it says: This is how every act of goodness, every gesture of true love towards one's neighbor, strengthens the likeness of the Redeemer of the world in the one who acts that way. Acts of love do not pass away. Every act of goodness, of understanding, of service, leaves on people's hearts an indelible imprint. … This is what shapes our identity and gives us our true name.
Jesus falls a second time
For 2,000 years the gospel of the Cross has spoken to man. For 20 centuries Christ, getting up again from his fall, meets those who fall. Throughout these two millennia many people have learned that falling does not mean the end of the road. In meeting the Savior they have heard his reassuring words: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
For our generation, which has just left a millennium behind, rather than weep for Christ crucified, it is now the time for us to recognize “the time of our visitation.” Already the dawn of the Resurrection is shining forth. … O Christ, do not permit that there should be weeping for us and for the men and women of the new century because we have rejected our merciful Father's outstretched hand.
Jesus falls the third time
The third fall seems to express just this: the self-emptying, the kenosis of the Son of God, his humiliation beneath the Cross… In the Upper Room, bending low to the ground and washing their feet, Jesus sought, as it were, to prepare them for this humiliation of his. Falling to the ground for the third time on the way of the Cross, he cries out loudly to us once more the mystery of himself.
Jesus is stripped on his garments and is offered vinegar and gall to drink
He did not want a sedative, which would have dulled his consciousness during the agony. He wanted to be fully aware as he suffered on the Cross, accomplishing the mission he had received from the Father… Without consciousness, he could not, in complete freedom, accept the full measure of suffering. … Conscience and freedom: these are the two essential elements of fully human action. The world has so many ways of weakening the will and of darkening conscience. They must be carefully defended from all violence. Even the legitimate attempt to control pain must always be done with respect for human dignity.
Jesus is nailed to the Cross
What is it that “draws” us to the Condemned One in agony on the Cross? Certainly the sight of such intense suffering stirs compassion. But compassion is not enough to lead us to bind our very life to the One who hangs on the Cross. How is it that, generation after generation, this appalling sight has drawn countless hosts of people who have made the Cross the hallmark of their faith? Hosts of men and women who for centuries have lived and given their lives looking to this sign? From the Cross, Christ draws us by the power of love, divine Love, which did not recoil from the total gift of self.
Jesus dies on the Cross
At the height of his Passion, Christ does not forget man, especially those who are directly responsible for his suffering. Jesus knows that more than anything else man needs love; he needs the mercy which at this moment is being poured out on the world.
Jesus is laid in the arms of his Mother
In the arms of his Mother they have placed the lifeless body of the Son. The Gospels say nothing of what she felt at that moment. It is as though by their silence the Evangelists wished to respect her sorrow, her feelings and her memories. Or that they simply felt incapable of expressing them. It is only the devotion of the centuries that has preserved the figure of the Pietà, providing Christian memory with the most sorrowful image of the ineffable bond of love which blossomed in the Mother's heart on the day of the Annunciation. … Now this intimate bond of love must be transformed into a union which transcends the boundary between life and death.
Jesus is laid in the tomb
The lifeless body of Christ has been laid in the tomb. But the stone of the tomb is not the final seal on his work. The last word belongs not to falsehood, hatred and violence. The last word will be spoken by Love, which is stronger than death. … The empty tomb is the sign of the definitive victory of truth over falsehood, of good over evil, of mercy over sin, of life over death.