Do not forsake the Cross: the Cross will carry you
The meditations on the Way of the Cross, at which Benedict XVI presided on Good Friday, 22 April , were written by Sr Maria Rita Piccione, OSA, President of the Our Lady of Good Counsel Federation of Augustinian Monasteries in Italy. The following is a translation of the meditations, which were written in Italian. [At the end of these meditations, the Holy Father gave a brief address to the faithful present.]
"If someone were to catch sight of his homeland from afar, separated by the sea, he would see his destination but lack the means of reaching it. So it is with us... We glimpse our goal across the sea of the present age... But to enable us to go there, the One who is our goal came to us... he brought us the plank by which we can make the passage. No one may cross the sea of his age, unless he be carried by the Cross of Christ... So do not forsake the Cross, and the Cross will carry you".
These words of St Augustine, taken from his Commentary on John's Gospel (2,2) introduce us to the prayer of the Way of the Cross.
The Way of the Cross is meant to help us cling to the wood of Christ's Cross through the seas of life. It is not merely a sentimental, popular devotion; rather, it expresses the core of the Christian experience: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me" (Mk 8:34).
For this reason each Good Friday the Holy Father makes the Way of the Cross before the whole world and in communion with it.
This year, Pope Benedict XVI turned to the world of Augustinian Nuns for the texts of the prayer, entrusting their composition to Sr Maria Rita Piccione, OSA, Mother President of the Our Lady of Good Counsel Federation of Augustinian Monasteries in Italy.
Sr Maria Rita is a member of the Augustinian hermitage of Lecceto, near Siena, one of the Tuscan convents of the 13th century and a cradle of the Order of St Augustine. She is currently a member of the community of the Santi Quatro Coronati in Rome, the site of the house of formation for all Augustinian novices and professed sisters in Italy.
The texts are thus the work of an Augustinian nun, but the illustrations also draw their form and colour from a feminine and Augustinian artistic sensibility. Sr Elena Maria Manganelli, OSA, of the hermitage of Lecceto, formerly a professional sculptress, created the pictures* which illustrate the various stations of the Way of the Cross.
This interplay of word, form and colour gives us a taste of Augustinian spirituality, inspired by the early community of Jerusalem and based on communion of life.
The preparation of this Way of the Cross was born, then, of the experience of nuns who "live together, reflect, pray and dialogue", to cite Romano Guardini's lively and insightful description of an Augustinian monastic community.
Each station is announced by its traditional title, followed by a short phrase which offers a starting-point for meditation on that station. We can imagine these words as spoken by a child, as a reminder of the simplicity of the little ones who see to the heart of things, and a sign of openness, in the Church's prayer, to the voice of childhood, at times abused and exploited.
The readings from the Word of God are drawn from the Gospel of John, except for those stations which lack a corresponding text or where the text is found in other Gospels. This shows a desire to emphasize the message of glory proclaimed by the Cross of Jesus.
The biblical text is then illustrated by a reflection which is brief, clear and original.
The prayer, addressed to "Jesus most humble" — an expression dear to the heart of Augustine (cf. Conf. 7, 18, 24) — abandons the adjective humble at the crucifixion-exaltation of Christ, and is the avowal which the Church as Bride makes to her Bridegroom.
This is followed by an invocation to the Holy Spirit who guides our steps and pours the love of God into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5): here the Apostolic-Petrine Church knocks at the door of God's heart.
Each station takes up a particular footprint left by Christ along the Way of the Cross, a footstep in which the believer is called to tread. The steps which mark the Way of the Cross, then, are truth, honesty, humility, prayer, obedience, freedom, patience, conversion, perseverance, simplicity, kingship, self-giving, maternity, silent expectation.
The pictures of Sr Elena Maria — austere in form and colour — present Jesus, alone in his passion, as he passes through the arid land digging a furrow and watering it by his grace. A ray of light, ever present and set in the form of a Cross, alludes to the gaze of the Father, while the shadow of a dove, the Holy Spirit, recalls that Christ "through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God" (Heb 9:14).
In offering this prayer of the Way of the Cross, the Augustinian Nuns wish to render a homage of love to the Church and to the Holy Father, in full harmony with the particular devotion and fidelity to the Church and the Popes professed by the Augustinian Order.
We are grateful to Sr Maria Rita and Sr Elena Maria who, nourished by constant meditation on the Word of God and the writings of St Augustine, and sustained by the prayer of the Communities of the Federation, agreed to share with utter simplicity their experience of Christ and the Paschal Mystery in a year when Easter falls on 24 April, the anniversary of the Baptism of St Augustine.
Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.1
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This evening we gather against the evocative backdrop of the Roman Colosseum. We are summoned by the Word just proclaimed to join Pope Benedict XVI along Jesus' Way of the Cross.
Let us turn our inward gaze to Christ and implore him with hearts afire: "I beg you, Lord: Say to my soul: I am your salvation! Say it, that I may hear it!"2
Christ's comforting voice blends with the delicate thread of our "yes", and the Holy Spirit, the finger of God, weaves within us the solid web of a faith full of consolation and guidance.
To follow, to believe and to pray: these are the simple and sure steps which guide our journey along the Way of the Cross, and gradually enable us to glimpse the path of Truth and Life.
you invite us to follow you
in this, your final hour.
In you, each one of us is present
and we, though many, are one in you.
In your final hour is our life's hour
of testing, in all its harshness and brutality;
it is the hour of the passion of your Church and of all humanity.
It is the hour of darkness:
when "the foundations of the earth tremble"3
and man, "a tiny part of your creation",4
groans and suffers with it;
an hour when the various masks of falsehood
mock the truth
and the allure of success stifles the deep call to honesty;
when utter lack of meaning and values
brings good training to nought and the disordered heart
disfigures the innocence of the small and weak;
an hour when man strays from the way leading to the Father
and no longer recognizes in you
the bright face of his own humanity.
This hour brings the temptation to flee,
the sense of bewilderment and anguish,
as the worm of doubt eats away at the mind
and the curtain of darkness falls on the heart.
And you, Lord,
who read the open book of our frail hearts, ask us this evening,
as once you asked the Twelve: "Do you also wish to leave me?"5
No, Lord, we cannot and would not leave you,
for you alone "have the words of eternal life",6
you alone are "the word of truth"7 and your Cross alone
is the "key that opens to us the secrets
of truth and life".8
"We will follow you wherever you go! "9
Following you is itself our act of worship,
as from the horizon of the not yet a ray of joy
caresses the already of our journey.
Jesus is condemned to death
Pilate finds in Jesus no cause for condemnation, yet he does not find within himself the strength to oppose the sentence.
His inner hearing is deaf to the word of Jesus; he fails to understand Jesus' testimony to the truth.
"To hear the truth is to obey it and believe in it".10 It is to live freely under its aegis and to entrust one's heart to it.
Pilate is not free: he is conditioned from without, yet the truth he has heard continues to echo within, knocking at his heart and troubling him.
So he goes out to the Jews; "he went out again", the text emphasizes, in an attempt, as it were, to flee from himself. And the voice coming to him from without prevails over the word within.
Here is where the condemnation of Jesus, the condemnation of the truth, is decided.
Jesus most humble, we too let ourselves be conditioned from without. We no longer know how to hear the quiet, exacting and liberating voice of our own conscience which lovingly invites us, appealing from within: "Do not go out, return to yourself: it is in the inner man that the truth dwells"."
Come, Spirit of Truth, help us to encounter in the "inner man, hidden deep within our hearts"12 the Holy Face of the Son who renews us in the Divine Likeness!
Jesus takes up his Cross
Pilate hesitates; he seeks a pretext to release Jesus, but yields to the outcry and the will which dominates, which appeals to the Law and spreads innuendo.
The history of the wounded human heart continues to be repeated: with its pettiness, its inability to see beyond itself, to escape the illusions of petty self-interest, and thus to find freedom, to take flight and to soar in the broad expanse of goodness and honesty.
The human heart is a microcosm.
Within it the great fortunes of humanity are decided, its conflicts resolved or intensified. But the decisive factor is always the same: whether to cling to, or to let go of, the truth which sets us free.
Jesus most humble, in the ebb and flow of daily life our heart looks down to its own small world, and, all consumed by the ledger of our own wellbeing, remains blind to the outstretched hand of the poor and needy which begs for a hearing and asks for help. At most we are touched, but we do not stir.
Come, Spirit of Truth, touch our heart and draw it to yourself. "Keep sound our inner sense of taste, that it may eat and drink of wisdom, justice, truth and eternity"!13
Jesus falls the first time
The story of Jesus falling three times along the Way of the Cross is not part of the biblical account; it is a legacy of traditional devotion, carefully preserved and cultivated in the hearts of those who pray.
In his first fall, Jesus turns to us, shows us a path, becomes our teacher.
He invites us to come to him whenever we experience human powerlessness, and to discover there the closeness of God's power.
He shows us the path leading to the fount of true refreshment, of the grace which is sufficient.
He teaches us the lesson of a meekness which quells rebellion and a trust which supplants arrogance.
As our teacher, the fallen Jesus gives us, most of all, the great lesson of humility, "the path that brought him to the Resurrection".14 The path that, after every fall, gives us the strength to say: "Now I will begin again, O Lord, with you and not alone!"
Jesus most humble, our own falls, born of our shortcomings and sins, bruise the pride of our hearts, close them to the grace of humility and halt our journey on the path that leads to you.
Come, Spirit of Truth, free us from every pretence of self-sufficiency and grant that we may recognize in every fall a step upon the stairway that rises to you!
Jesus meets his Mother
St John shows us Jesus' Mother standing beneath his Cross, but no Evangelist tells us outright of an encounter between the two.
And yet this "standing" of his Mother at the Cross is truly an encounter in the most profound sense of the word. The seemingly static verb — "to stand" — actually expresses deep inner movement and vitality.
It is the intense movement of prayer joined to tranquil acquiescence. To pray is let oneself be caught up in the loving and true gaze of God, who reveals us to ourselves and sends us forth on mission.
In authentic prayer, a personal encounter with Jesus makes each of us a mother and a beloved disciple, it begets life and transmits love. It expands our inner ' receptivity and weaves mystical bonds of communion, entrusting us to one another and opening the individual you to the common we of the Church.
Jesus most humble, when life's trials and injustices, its unmerited sufferings and brutal violence make us lash out against you, you ask us to stand, like your Mother, at the foot of the Cross. When our plans and expectations fall apart or seem doomed to failure, and make us flee in desperation, you recall us to the strength found in waiting. We have indeed forgotten the power of standing still as an expression of prayer!
Come, Spirit of Truth, be the "cry of our heart"15 which incessantly and inexpressibly stands with confidence in the presence of God!
Simone of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his Cross
Simon of Cyrene is a man portrayed by the Evangelists with precise details regarding his name and back-ground, his family and work. His is the photograph of a man caught at a certain time and place, in some way forced to carry a Cross not his own. Yet Simon of Cyrene is really each of us. He accepts the burden of the Cross of Jesus, just as we ourselves received the sign of the Cross at Holy Baptism.
The life of a disciple of Jesus consists in just such obedience to the sign of the Cross, in a disposition ever more marked by the freedom of love and mirroring the obedience of the Master. It is a complete surrender to learning, like him, the geometry of love,16 according to the measure of the Cross: the breadth of good works, the length of perseverance in trial, the height of the hope which trusts and fixes its gaze aloft, the depth of the grace that sinks it roots in gratuity".17
Jesus most humble, when life gives us a bitter cup to drink, our nature closes in upon itself, digs in, fearful of being caught up in the folly of that greater love which turns renunciation into joy, obedience into freedom and sacrifice into greatness of heart!
Come, Spirit of Truth, make us obedient when the Cross comes into our lives, and docile to its sign, which embraces our whole being: "body and soul, thoughts and will, senses and feelings, acting and suffering"18 and expands all things in accordance with love's measure!
Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Along the Way of the Cross popular devotion has depicted a woman's gesture, steeped in gentleness and veneration, a kind of lingering trace of the perfume of Bethany. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. In that face, marred by suffering, Veronica recognizes the face transfigured by glory; in the features of the suffering Servant she sees the fairest of the sons of men. Seeing Jesus in this way leads to her generous gesture of kindness and in return she receives the imprint of the Holy Face! Veronica teaches us the secret of that feminine gaze that invites encounter and offers help: it sees persons with the heart!19
Jesus most humble, our eyes are incapable of looking beyond: beyond poverty, to recognize your presence, beyond the shadow of sin, to glimpse the sun of your mercy, beyond the blemishes of the Church, to see the face of a Mother.
Come, Spirit of Truth, pour into our eyes "the cleansing balm of faith"20 that they may not be distracted by outward appearances, but come to know the allure of things unseen.
Jesus falls the second time
Jesus falls again beneath the weight of the Cross. The wood of our salvation is burdened not only with the infirmities of our human nature but also the trials of our daily life. Jesus shouldered the burden of persecution against the Church, past and present, the persecution that murders Christians in the name of a heartless idol and offends her dignity "with lying lips and arrogant words."21 Jesus bore the burden of persecution against Peter, against the untrammeled voice of "the truth that challenges and frees the heart."22 By his Cross, Jesus bore the burden of persecution against his servants and disciples, against those who respond to hatred with love, to violence with meekness. By his Cross, Jesus bore the burden of that inordinate "love of self which leads to contempt of God"23 and injustice against our brothers and sisters. He bore it all freely, he endured it all "in patience, as a means of instructing our own patience". 24
Jesus most humble, amid the injustices and trials of this life we fail to stand fast in patience. Often we implore you to show your power by freeing us of the weighty wood of our personal Cross.
Come, Spirit of Truth, teach us to follow the example of Christ and "to practise his great precepts of patience by the tenor of our hearts!"25
Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, who weep for him
Jesus our Master, on the way to Calvary, continues to teach us what it is to be human. Meeting the women of Jerusalem and casting his gaze of truth and mercy upon them, he accepts every tear of compassion shed for him. The God who wept over Jerusalem26 now directs the tears of those women away from fruitless outward pity. He invites them to see in him the fate of the innocent man unjustly condemned and then seared, like green wood, by the "chastisement that makes us whole".27 He helps them to look to the dry wood of their own hearts in order to experience the life-giving pain born of compunction.
Our sorrow is authentic when we weep not only to confess our sin but also to express heartfelt anguish. Such tears are blessed, like the tears of Peter, a sign of repentance and a pledge of conversion, and they renew within us the grace of our Baptism.
Jesus most humble, in your body, afflicted and abused, disgraced and scorned, we are unable to see the wounds of our own infidelity and ambition, our betrayal and our rebellion. Your wounds cry out, pleading for the balm of our conversion, yet today we no longer know how to weep for our sins.
Come, Spirit of Truth, pour out upon us the gift of Wisdom! In the light of your saving Love, make us aware of our own wretchedness, grant us "the tears that take away guilt, the weeping that merits forgiveness"!28
Jesus falls the third time
In his third fall, Jesus expresses the love with which, for our sake, he embraced the burden of suffering, and he renews his call to follow him faithfully to the end. But he also gives us a glimpse of what lies beyond the veil of the promise: "If we endure, we shall also reign with him".29
Jesus' falls are part of the mystery of his Incarnation. He sought us out in our weakness, descending into its very depths in order to raise us up to himself. "In himself he showed us the path of humility, to open up for us the path of return".30 "He taught us patience as the weapon that conquers the world".31 Now, falling to the ground for the third time, even as he "sympathizes with our weaknesses",32 he shows us how not to succumb to temptation: we are to persevere, to remain steadfast, in a word, "to remain in him".33
Jesus most humble, amid the trials that sift our faith we feel alone and forlorn: we do not yet believe that these, our trials were once yours and that you ask us simply to endure them with you.
Come, Spirit of Truth, whenever we fall along the way! Teach us to cling to Jesus' fidelity and to trust in his prayer for us, that we may receive that stream of power which he alone, God-with-us, is able to give!
Jesus is stripped of his garments
Jesus stands naked. The image of Christ stripped of his garments is richly biblical: it brings us back to the innocent nudity of our origins and to the shame of the Fall.34
In original innocence, nudity was the robe of man's glory: his transparent and beautiful friendship with God. With the Fall, the harmony of that relationship is broken, nudity becomes shameful and it contains the tragic memory of that loss.
Nakedness is another word for the truth of being.
Jesus, stripped of his garments, wove from the Cross the new robe of our dignity as sons and daughters of God. His seamless tunic remains there, for us, in its integrity: the garment of his divine sonship was not torn, but was bestowed upon us from the height of the Cross.
Jesus most humble, in the sight of your nakedness we come to see what is essential in our lives and in ourjoy: that in you we are sons and daughters of the Father. But we also see our own unwillingness to embrace poverty as dependence on the Father, and to accept nakedness as the garment of our sonship.
Come, Spirit of Truth, help us to acknowledge and bless in every despoliation that we endure a confrontation with the truth of our being, an encounter with the redemptive nakedness of the Saviour, a springboard towards filial embrace with the Father!
Jesus is nailed to the Cross
The crucified Jesus is at the centre; the royal title, high above the Cross, discloses the depths of the mystery: Jesus is the King and the Cross is his throne. Jesus' kingship, recorded in three languages, is a message for all: for the simple and the wise, the poor and the powerful, those who trust in God's law and those who trust in political power. The image of the Crucified One, which no human decree will ever be able to remove from the walls of our heart, will remain for ever the royal Word of Truth: the "Crucified Light which enlightens the blind",35 the "treasure which only prayer can unlock",36 the heart of the world.
Jesus' does not reign with worldly might, he has "no legions".37 "Jesus reigns by drawing to himself":38 his magnet is the love of the Father who gives himself for us, in the Son, "to the infinite end".39 "Nothing is withdrawn from its burning heat! "40
Lord Jesus, crucified for our sake, you are the proof of the Father's great love for mankind, the image of that truth which alone is credible. Draw us to yourself, that we may learn to live by "love of your love".41
Come, Spirit of Truth, help us always to choose "God and his will over the interests of the world and its powers", and to discover, in the outward powerlessness of the Crucified Lord, the ever new power of truth.42
Jesus dies on the Cross
"I thirst." "It is finished." With these two phrases Jesus, looking first to humanity and then to the Father, bequeaths to us the burning passion at the heart of his Person and mission: love for man and obedience to the Father. His is a love both horizontal and vertical: in the shape of the Cross! And at the intersection of this twofold love, at the place where Jesus bows his head, the Holy Spirit wells up, the first fruits of his return to the Father.
This final breath which brings Jesus' life to completion evokes the work of creation,43 which now is redeemed. But it is also a summons to all of us who believe in him to "bring to completion in our own flesh what is lacking in Christ's afflictions".44 That all may be complete!
Lord Jesus, who died for our sake! You ask, that you may give, you die, that you may leave a legacy, and thus you make us see that the gift of self opens a space for unity. Pardon the gall of our rejection and unbelief, pardon the deafness of our hearts to your cry of thirst which echoes in the suffering of our many brothers and sisters.
Come, Holy Spirit, parting gift of the Son who dies for us: may you be the guide who "leads us into all the truth"45 and "the root which sustains us in unity"!46
Jesus is taken down from the Cross and given to his Mother
Jesus' pierced side is not only a wound but a window; it is an open door to the heart of God. Here his infinite love for us can be drawn like life-giving water, a drink which, unseen, satisfies and revives. May we, too, draw near the body of Jesus, lowered from the Cross and held in his Mother's arms. Let us approach "not by walking but by believing, not with physical steps but with the free decision of our heart".47 In this lifeless body we see ourselves as members of Christ, his limbs, wounded and suffering, yet safe in the loving embrace of our Mother.
But let us also see ourselves as held in these motherly arms, firm yet gentle.
The open arms of the Church, our Mother, are like the altar which offers us the Body of Christ. There we become Christ's mystical Body.
Lord Jesus, placed in the arms of your Mother, the image of our Mother the Church! As we contemplate the figure of the Pietà we learn devotion to the "yes" of love; we learn surrender and acceptance, trust and practical concern, a tender heart which restores life and awakens joy.
Come, Holy Spirit, guide us, as you guided Mary, by the radiant gratuity of the love "poured forth from God into our hearts by the gift of your presence!"48
Jesus is placed in the tomb
A garden, whose colours are a symbol of life, receives the mystery of man, created and redeemed. It was in a garden that God set the man he had created,49 and thence banished him after the Fall.50 It was in a garden that the Passion of Jesus began,51 and now in a garden an empty tomb receives the new Adam as he returns to the earth,52 the maternal womb which holds the seed that dies to bear much fruit.
This is the hour of faith, which waits silently, and of hope, which already sees on the withered branch a a tiny bud, the promise of salvation and joy.
Now the voice of "God speaks in silent depths of the heart".53
1 1 Pet 2:21.
2 St Augustine, Confessions, 1, 5, 5 (all non-biblical citations, unless otherwise noted, are from St Augustine).
3 Is 24:18.
4 Confessions, 1, 1, 1.
5 Jn 6:67.
6 Jn 6:68.
7 Cf. Eph 1:13.
8 Cf. Commentary on the Psalms, 45, 1.
9 Cf. Mt 8:19.
10 Cf. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 115, 4.
11 On True Religion, 39, 72.
12 Cf. Jerusalem Bible (Italian), note on I Pet 3:4.
13 Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 5.
14 Commentary on the Psalms, 127, 10.
15 Cf. Commentary on the Psalms, 118, d. 29, I.
16 Cf. Eph 3:18.
17 Cf. Letter 140,26, 64.
18 Cf. R. Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Sacred Signs.
19 Cf. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 12.
20 Commentary on the Gospel of John, 34, 9.
21 Ps 11(12): 4.
22 Cf. Benedict XVI, On Conscience, San Francisco, 2007.
23 The City of God, 14, 28.
24 Sermon 175, 3, 3.
25 Commentary on the Gospel of John, 113, 4.
26 Cf. Lk 19:41.
27 Is 53:5.
28 Cf. St Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, X, 90.
29 2 Tim 2:12.
30 Cf. Sermon 50, II.
31 Cf. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 113, 4.
32 Heb 4:15.
33 Cf. Jn 15:7.
34 Gen 2:25; 3:7.
35 Cf. Sermon 136, 4.
36 Cf. Sermon 160, 3.
37 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, San Francisco, 2011, p. 190.
38 Cf. Jn 12:32.
39 H.U. Von Balthasar, You Crown the World with Goodness.
40 Ps 18/19:7.
41 Confessions, 2, 1, 1.
42 Benedict XVI, op. cit., pp. 192ff.
43 Gen 2:2,7.
44 Cf. Col 1:24.
45 Cf. Jn 16:13.
46 Cf. Commentary on the Psalms, 143, 3.
47 Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 3.
48 Cf. Rom 5:5.
49 Gen 2:8.
50 Gen 3:23.
51 Jn 18:1.
52 Jn 19:41.
53 Commentary on the Psalms, 38, 20.
*The illustrations of Sr Elena Maria Manganelli, OSA, are not included here.