VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI wanted the voice of today’s living martyrs, especially Catholics in China, to be heard at the Way of the Cross, said the author of this year’s meditations.
The pope asked Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong to write the commentary and prayers for the March 21 Good Friday evening service at Rome’s Colosseum.
The cardinal, who long has been outspoken on the lack of full religious freedom in mainland China, said this was the pope’s way of bringing attention to Asia and involving “the faithful of China, for whom the ‘Via Crucis’ is a devotion” many hold close to their hearts.
“The pope wanted me to bring to the Colosseum the voice of those faraway sisters and brothers,” he wrote in the introduction to the mediations and prayers released by the Vatican in Italian March 18. The 64-page booklet was illustrated with 20th-century Chinese Christian art from the Society of Divine Word’s archives.
While Christ’s suffering and passion are the focus of the service, “behind him there are many people, past and present,” such as all the living martyrs of the 21st century, he wrote.
Cardinal Zen said he accepted the pope’s invitation with “little hesitation,” but soon discovered, much to his surprise, that his early drafts did not reflect a very Christian attitude.
He said he had to step back and purify himself of the “less than charitable feelings” he had toward those who made Jesus suffer and who “are making our brothers and sisters suffer in today’s world.”
In “thinking about persecution,” he wrote, “let us also (think) about the persecutors” and how even they are being called to salvation by God.
The 2008 stations are drawn directly from the Gospel of Mark and do not follow the traditional Catholic set that includes events not in the Bible, such as St. Veronica wiping Jesus’ face.
In his meditation for the first station – “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane” – Cardinal Zen drew from Pope Benedict’s June letter to Chinese Catholics to remind people that in many parts of the world, the church “is going through the dark times of persecution.”
While these victims of repression, oppression and humiliation may be wondering why they must endure such hardships, the cardinal asked the Lord to help those who suffer to no longer be afraid, but to trust in him and his divine plan.
In his meditation for the fourth station – “Jesus is denied by Peter” – Cardinal Zen said Christ’s decision to entrust “weak and vulnerable men” to continue his mission of salvation is a sign of his wisdom and strength.
He prayed the Lord would protect those he has chosen and that the gates of hell do not prevail over his servants.
Cardinal Zen prayed in his meditation for the fifth station – “Jesus is judged by Pilate” – that God would give leaders “the courage to respect religious freedom.”
Pilate may have seemed powerful, he wrote, but he was really “weak, vile and servile,” and was afraid of the emperor, the populous and the high priests.
Pilate is a symbol of all those who wield authority “as an instrument of power” and not as a vehicle for carrying out true justice, he said.
Cardinal Zen prayed the Lord would awaken the consciences of the many people in power so that they “recognize the innocence of (Christ’s) followers. Give them courage to respect religious freedom.”
The cardinal decried the use of psychological and physical torture and wrote that Christ is able to bring meaning to and make all suffering holy.
He said even though the suffering of Christian martyrs makes it seem like the church has lost that battle their deaths “will bring about true victory to your church.”
In his eighth station – “Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrenian to carry the cross” – Cardinal Zen praised nonbelievers for “generously alleviating” the suffering of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
“When we help brothers and sisters of the persecuted church, help us remember that, in reality, we are the ones who will be helped even more by them,” he said.
In his meditation for the 11th station – “Jesus promises his kingdom to the good thief” – the cardinal wrote that the thief was a wrongdoer like “all of us.”
But Jesus is close to everyone, he said. He prayed that the Lord would remember all people: “our friends, our enemies and the persecutors of our friends. Salvation for everyone is the true victory of the Lord.”
In his meditation for the 14th, and last, station – “Jesus is placed in the tomb” – the cardinal recalled the long wait between Jesus’ burial and his resurrection three days later. Even his strongest disciples grew weary in waiting, he wrote.
He asked, “Are we not right in being in a hurry” and wanting to see an immediate victory of Christ over evil?
Cardinal Zen said perhaps “it is our victory we are eager to witness” and prayed for perseverance and patience, reminding the faithful that God promised to be with his children to the end of time.