The Way of the Cross is a traditional event of World Youth Day (WYD), celebrated on Friday evenings. On this occasion, the Holy Father’s appearance was more subdued. He came on the stage and promptly began the somber, prayerful meditation of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross.
As in previous WYD presentations of this devotional exercise, together with some of the traditional stations, other scriptural references from the Passion are chosen for contemplation and prayer. For example, in Panamá the second station was "Jesus is betrayed by Judas"; the fourth station, "Jesus is denied by Peter"; the eleventh station, "Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief".
As the communal meditation began, a huge wooden cross was carried by different communities of youth drawn from all around the American continent. A delegation of young people from the United States carried the cross during the twelfth station: the encounter of Christ crucified, Mary his mother, and the beloved disciple. The procession took advantage of the multi-platform stage to position the cross in a different place with each delegation forming a tableau around it. Each reflection focused on connecting the way of the Lord’s cross with the lives of the young people. Each delegation took up the cross and lifted it up over their heads or upon their shoulders. This simple gesture eloquently spoke, without the need for words, of the challenges and obstacles young people face all over the world: indigenous youth from Guatemala, young people from Cuba, men and women from Venezuela, youth from Honduras. Each group spoke of a different part of the Passion of Jesus that is prolonged in the current day.
The cross is a sign of contradiction. While many sober and difficult realities of young people today were seen as a reflection of the Lord’s own suffering, the youthful assembly was challenged not to stand-back indifferent or intimidated by all that threatens human dignity and their youthful aspirations. As Christ’s embrace of the cross transformed it into a tree of life and a standard of hope, so are his disciples called to do the same.
Earlier in the day, I attended another catechesis in another, more middle-class neighborhood of Panamá City. As with the session on Thursday, the catechesis was offered in Spanish with a vivacious choir that gave a Caribbean sound to many traditional Spanish hymns. The pilgrim delegations present came mostly from Central America and the Caribbean.
At the end of my presentation, I offered the opportunity for questions. As I listened and tried to respond, much of the inquiries had to do with the United States, either wanting to understand the treatment of refugees on the border or the government shutdown. There was no anger or cynicism, just an effort to understand what is happening to the big neighbor to the North, taking advantage of a bishop from the US who spoke their language. There were other questions about issues in their own countries but it was clear to me that these were being influenced by the dominant culture of the United States. One of the questions was about their country’s current debate on the legalization of abortion. Other questions were about the politics of gender identity. The unspoken insinuation was that since these ideas came from “el Norte” (literally “the North”, meaning the US), how does the Church in el Norte handle this?
As I tried to handle these honest, sincere questions, I emphasized the importance of speaking from our Catholic tradition and avoiding the polemic trap of being labeled the “the Church of no”. Our moral tradition always comes from a “yes”: yes to human life, yes to the marriage of man and woman, yes to the integrity of human person both body and soul. We start there, from God’s affirming word that created all that is good. Anything less than that will fail to announce the Evangelii Gaudium, the joy of the gospel.
During the offering of the Mass at the end of the catechesis, many questions of the young people were still in my mind. Their questions are only slightly different variations on those I get from many of our young people in Sacramento. This led me to a new appreciation for the fidelity to which I am called. In so many ways my life is very connected to the struggles and aspirations of these young people despite the continental distances. Culturally, economically, politically, and electronically we are already weaved together. The influence of the United States in each of these dimensions is huge, pervasive, and dominant. I must understand my faithfulness to Christ and to the Church in this wider, global perspective. Standing with these young people as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer challenged me to see this in a more personal way. My fidelity to the Lord Jesus must include a faithfulness in word and deed for these from around our continent whom he dearly loves.
This reflection seeped even more deeply into my mind and heart during the meditation of the Lord’s Way of the Cross. This devotional exercise offers the Faithful a way to be more in solidarity with Jesus. Contemporary meditations on the way of the cross help us to see the crucified one in those who suffer around us with the same sense of saving solidarity.
Pope St. John Paul II called solidarity the “modern virtue”. I experienced the reasons, the personal reasons, to practice this virtue, in the faces and the questions before me. I must still learn how to practice more intentionally and to make a habit of that intent, even a ritual by which we “adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”