VATICAN CITY (CNS) — People following the Stations of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum this year will be guided in an exercise of imagining what Jesus was thinking and feeling along the Via Dolorosa.
Those moments of bitterness and pain — “Now I am sharing the ultimate, painful experience of every human being near death,” one meditation says — also are accompanied by moments of faith and gratitude, especially for the assistance and consolation Jesus experiences along the way.
Written by an Italian bishop well-known for leading spiritual exercises, the meditations are meant to inspire today’s men and women to think about their own crosses in light of Jesus’ passion and how, by following his way, they can endure and find new meaning and life.
Several days before the pope’s Good Friday commemoration April 3, the Vatican released the Way of the Cross meditations, along with the commentary and prayers for the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Every year, the pope asks a person or group of people to write the meditations that are read aloud during the nighttime, torch-lit Good Friday ceremony, which he presides over.
For 2015, Pope Francis picked 79-year-old Bishop Renato Corti, the retired head of the Diocese of Novara, in northern Italy, and a longtime spiritual director. Often called to lead spiritual exercises for priests and laypeople, St. John Paul II even asked the prelate to lead his Lenten retreat in 2005.
The common thread throughout the meditations is to reflect on how God protects his people and calls everyone to watch over each other, Bishop Corti told the Italian Catholic magazine, Credere.
He said Pope Francis’ homily from the Mass inaugurating his pontificate in 2013 served as the inspiration for the meditations; celebrating the feast of St. Joseph — the “custos” or protector of Mary, Jesus and the church — the pope highlighted God’s example, invitation and command to protect and safeguard all of creation.
In a world that shows little interest in or dedication to protecting, it is in “the contemplation of God’s love, which protects us, that leads the disciples in turn to be protectors of humanity, in imitation of their teacher,” said Bishop Corti.
He crafted the meditations, reflections and prayers for each station in such a way as to stir in people’s hearts “deep and sincere empathy,” first with Jesus and then with one’s own fragility and the needs of one’s neighbors, he said.
It mirrors a practice the Jesuit pope is very familiar with: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who invited people to “enter the scene, become part of the main characters, look at Jesus, understanding his feelings and thoughts” when reading the Gospels, Bishop Corti said.
Empathy with Jesus includes “thinking about the human condition today, the crucified of today and those who crucify mankind. Empathy means being close to humanity and it also requires conversion,” the bishop said.
Among the victimized and their victimizers illustrated in the meditations are those persecuted or killed for their faith or because they work for justice and peace in the world.
The second station — Jesus takes up his cross — includes a prayer for “the fundamental right of religious freedom” after an excerpt of “the words of a martyr, Shahbaz Bhatti,” a Catholic and the federal minister for religious minorities in Pakistan who was murdered in 2011 for his work on behalf of religious minorities.
Reflecting on the fourth station — Jesus meets his mother — the bishop highlights “the many dramatic family situations in our world.” While “it is easy to judge,” he wrote, “it is more important to put ourselves in the place of others and to help them as best we can.”
That reflection includes a prayer for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family asking that the pope, bishops and others taking part will be “docile to the Holy Spirit and carry out their discernment with wisdom” so that “mercy and truth will meet.”
The 10th station — Jesus is stripped of his garments — underlines the evil of child abuse as it looks at the “appalling realities of human trafficking, child soldiers, slave labor, children and adolescents robbed of their souls, wounded in their deepest being, barbarously violated.”
After contemplating Jesus forgiving his persecutors, the 11th station — Jesus is nailed to the cross — asks when will the death penalty be abolished and “every form of torture and the violent killing of innocent persons come to an end? Your Gospel is the surest defense of the human person, of every human being,” the bishop wrote.
Despite all the physical and spiritual trials, the author shows in his Way of the Cross meditations that the human heart is ready for something other than despair and hate. It “awaits something completely different: the protection of love,” he wrote.
Together with prayers that God protect everyone on earth, the bishop included a prayer that each person take responsibility to protect his or her own heart — to make it open and expansive as God’s, open to hope, caring, consolation and “bringing light to those living in darkness.”
The Way of the Cross meditations are available in English here.