The Way of the Cross

August 9, 2011

It seems as though youth worldwide can be reticent, perhaps even reluctant, to take the initiative when it comes to organizing and participating in Church activities. However, this hasn’t been my experience in Lima, Peru, where I have worked as a missionary for the last four years.

Every year the youth in the parish of Our Lord of Peace in El Pacifico—the suburb on the northern side of Lima named after the mighty Pacific Ocean that laps the coast nearby—have been the leading protagonists in organizing and running the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) on Good Friday during Holy Week.

The youth, between 16 and 26 years old, either belong to the parish youth group called the Community of Parish Youth (COPAJU), or they are among the 200-300 young people who prepare for the Sacrament of Confirmation annually in the parish which began life as a fledgling Columban mission 30 years ago. While the adults participate and join in the Stations of the Cross, these two groups of youth supply the inspiration and organization for this very colorful Good Friday procession. Generally there is no lack of talent and enthusiasm for the task at hand.

During Lent, cloth, leather and wood are purchased with the meager funds these youth groups have at their disposal. Then they set to work laboriously sewing the life-like Roman and Jewish costumes and fashioning the weapons of antiquity the actors will wear and use on the day. On week nights, the youth gather to rehearse scripts and scenes for the Via Crucis. They commit the lines taken from the Scriptures to memory, the idea being to produce as real a presentation of Jesus’ last traumatic hours as possible. Despite the fact that all of the actors are amateurs, nothing is left to chance. The young man portraying Jesus has to be genuinely capable of expressing the pain Jesus would have felt while being strong enough to carry a moderately heavy replica of the cross. The Roman soldiers are usually selected from the burlier of the males, and the girls representing Mary, Veronica and the Jewish women who accompanied Jesus to the cross wail and lament as Jesus passes by on his three kilometer walk to the site where he will be “crucifi ed.” The Roman soldiers usually are determined to give the women actors plenty to cry about, leaving Jesus covered in red welts from the lashings applied by lightweight dyecovered leather whips. During the years I participated in our parish Via Crucis, as many as 2,000 people might accompany the procession in any one year. The adults would stop while our youthful actors would reenact the last tragic scenes of Jesus’ life then follow on with a more formal prayer commemorating each station.

The biggest challenge for me and many of the adults was always the fi nal kilometer which passed through a very poor neighborhood called Pope John Paul II and was perched on a narrow, rocky ridge. We followed this with a steep ascent to the top of the 300 meter high Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) hill after processing two kilometers along Angelica Gamarra Avenue. Some of the parishioners joked that I wouldn’t make it to the summit and should quit while I was ahead. This only made me more determined to reach the summit. One year I thought I was doing well as I slowly plodded up the pathway leading to the top only to see fi ve young men run up the hill carrying the cross over their heads in order to prepare for the Fourteenth Station before the crowds arrived. On the summit, our Jesus was duly strapped to the cross and elevated to represent the fi nal but glorious suffering of the crucifi ed Christ.

In 2009 we had to cancel the climb to the summit of Holy Cross hill because the one and only rocky street that passes through the tiny suburb of John Paul II had been dug up to lay long overdue water and sewage pipes which made it impossible to pass through. We were forced to cancel the ascent to the summit for fear the older folks and children might fall and disappear down the trenches. Of course, the inhabitants of the little village of John Paul II were mortifi ed and resolved to have the road fi xed for the following year. Despite all their efforts however, the hill-dwelling community only managed to patch up the gaping holes in their main street just days before the next Good Friday Via Crucis because of the often slow pace of completing public works. They were so grateful to see the procession return to their neighborhood they laid a welcome sign at the entrance to their street with the words Cristo vive—Christ lives.

What motivates the youth of El Pacifi co parish to participate so enthusiastically in and make the Via Crucis their own? I believe they identify Jesus’ fi nal sufferings with their own struggle in life. In a seminar held on education in the Columban Mission Education Center in Lima, one young man said that even though poor families who come from areas like El Pacifi co make great sacrifi ces to educate their children, the doors to better employment are often closed to them because of racism and class distinctions. This leads us to the question, if we avoid suffering will we ever experience the resurrection? Perhaps the message for all of us is that we truly have to embrace suffering if we are to understand life and be able to live it to the fullest. The youth’s acceptance of the Via Crucis is a a sign of their own willingness to embrace suffering as the way to a new life.