Vatican Adapts Way of the Cross Service to Acknowledge Ukraine-Russia Conflict

The meditation for “Jesus Dies on the Cross” was written by members of a Ukrainian and a Russian family. It was not read out during the Via Crucis at Rome’s Colosseum on April 15.

Women from Ukraine and Russia hold the cross at Rome’s Colosseum April 15 during the Vatican's Way of the Cross service.
Women from Ukraine and Russia hold the cross at Rome’s Colosseum April 15 during the Vatican's Way of the Cross service. (photo: Catholic News Agency / Daniel Ibáñez)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican adapted Pope Francis’ Way of the Cross on Good Friday after an outcry in Ukraine over a Station involving Ukrainian and Russian families.

The meditation for the 13th Station, “Jesus Dies on the Cross,” was written by members of a Ukrainian and a Russian family. In the event, the meditation was not read out during the Via Crucis at Rome’s Colosseum on April 15. 

In its place, a reader said: “In the face of death, silence is more eloquent than words. Let us therefore pause in prayerful silence and each one in his heart pray for peace in the world.”

During the silence, the cross was held tightly by two friends, Irina, from Ukraine, and Albina, from Russia. The women, who work together at the Campus Bio-Medico University Hospital in Rome, looked at each other as they held the cross with tears in their eyes.

The original plan for the Via Crucis was strongly criticized by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who described it as “untimely.” 

“For the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, the texts and gestures of the 13th station of this Way of the Cross are incoherent and even offensive, especially in the context of the expected second, even bloodier attack of Russian troops on our cities and villages,” he said.

Andrii Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, also expressed concern about the format. 

Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi, the Latin Rite bishop of Kyiv-Zhytomyr, described it as “incomprehensible.”

But Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica, strongly defended the approach in the Italian media.

“Two women, Albina and Irina, will carry the cross on Good Friday. They will not say a single word. Not even a request for forgiveness or anything like that. Nothing. They are under the Cross in carrying it. Scandalously together,” he wrote in the Italian newspaper il manifesto.

“It will be a prophetic sign while the darkness is thick. Their being together, daughters of God and sisters in a war that from being friends has made them enemies, is an invocation to God to give us the grace of reconciliation.”

In a social media post after the Via Crucis, Father Spadaro said that the 13th Station was marked by an “extraordinary” silence that focused all attention on the cross carried by Irina and Albina.

The original text of the meditation for the 13th Station of the Cross reflected on the horror of war, without mentioning Ukraine by name.  

It said: “Death everywhere. Life that seems to lose its value. Everything changes in a few seconds. Our life, our days, the carefree winter snow, bringing the children to school, work, embraces, friendships ... everything. Everything suddenly loses meaning and value.”  

“‘Where are you Lord? Where are you hiding? We want our life back as before. Why all of this?  What wrong did we do? Why have you forsaken us? Why have you forsaken our peoples? Why did you break up our families like this? Why do we no longer have the desire to dream and to go on living?  Why has my land become as dark as Golgotha?’”  

“We have no tears left. Anger has given way to resignation. We know that you love us, Lord, but we don’t feel this love and it drives us to desperation. We wake up in the morning and feel happy for a few moments, but then we suddenly think how difficult it will be to reconcile ourselves to all this.”  

“Lord, where are you? Speak to us amid the silence of death and division, and teach us to be peacemakers, brothers and sisters, and to rebuild what bombs tried to destroy.”

Around 10,000 people attended the Pope’s Via Crucis, which was held at the Colosseum for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Roman tradition of holding the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Friday dates back to the pontificate of Benedict XIV, who led the Church from 1740 to 1758.

After dying out for a period, the tradition was revived in 1964 by Pope Paul VI, while under Pope John Paul II the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum became a worldwide television event.

While in the past, the Pope himself used to carry the cross from station to station around the Colosseum, it is now carried by individuals and families.

This year’s cross-bearers included a widow, a family that lost a child, a young married couple, and a missionary family.

According to the Vatican, 15 families were selected to write the Stations of the Cross meditations to mark the Amoris Laetitia Family Year, which will conclude on June 26 with the 10th edition of the World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Rome.

As the families processed around the Colosseum behind a plain black cross, Pope Francis sat listening intently on a velvet-covered chair on a raised platform.

At the end of the live-streamed Via Crucis, the 85-year-old Pope recited a prayer, before giving his apostolic blessing:

Merciful Father,
you make your sun rise on both good and bad alike.
Do not abandon the work of your hands,
for which you did not hesitate
to deliver your only Son,
born of the Virgin
and crucified under Pontius Pilate.
He died and was buried in the heart of the earth.
He was raised from the dead on the third day,
and appeared to Mary Magdalene,
to Peter and to the other apostles and disciples.
He lives forever in holy Church,
his living Body in the world.
Keep alight in our families
the lamp of the Gospel,
which illumines our joys and sorrows, our struggles and our hopes:
May every home reflect the face of the Church,
whose supreme law is love.
By the outpouring of your Spirit,
help us to cast aside the old man,
corrupted by illusory passions.
Clothe us in the new man,
created in justice and holiness.
Take us by the hand, like a Father, lest we stray from you.
Turn our rebellious hearts to your own heart,
so that we may learn to pursue plans of peace.
Inspire adversaries to shake hands,
and taste mutual forgiveness.
Disarm the hand of brother raised against brother,
so that where there is hatred, concord may flourish.
Grant that we never act as enemies of the cross of Christ,
so that we may share in the glory of his resurrection.

He lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
forever and ever.