The Holy Week liturgies are always grueling ones for an elderly pontiff. This has been more apparent than ever this year with Pope Francis, whose ongoing mobility issues slowed him down during the recent trip to Malta as well as this week. The weight of the ongoing war in Ukraine as well as the lingering effects of the pandemic all appear to be weighing heavily on him.
While he returned to a Holy Week liturgical schedule more reminiscent of the pre-pandemic days and without significant restrictions on crowd sizes or attendance, Francis made modifications to his own schedule which may signal his personal needs and pastoral priorities. He returned to his custom from the beginning of the pontificate–until it was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic–of visiting a prison on Holy Thursday evening for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and washed the feet of twelve prisoners himself. He also returned to preside over the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday evening. But he elected not to preside, as planned, at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, instead only preaching.
We can see, then, in what he does do a form of preaching by example in the mold of Francis of Assisi: he did wash feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the prison at Civitavecchia; he did venerate the Cross on Good Friday; he did implore the world for peace at the Urbi et Orbi blessing on Easter Sunday.
At the Easter Vigil, he directed our attention to the women of the Gospel who can help us to glimpse God’s plan of peace for the world, even when we are afraid and tempted by the reality of war to despair.
Many writers have evoked the beauty of starlit nights. The nights of war, however, are riven by streams of light that portend death. On this night, brothers and sisters, let us allow the women of the Gospel to lead us by the hand, so that, with them, we may glimpse the first rays of the dawn of God’s life rising in the darkness of our world.
That the women of the Gospel saw, heard, and proclaimed the message of the Risen Lord should lead us to also hear the question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The message of Easter is a challenging one; that Christ is truly risen upsets our expectations and surprises us with a hope beyond what we could have imagined. It can be more comfortable to ruminate on what we already know about how hopeless things seem.
Francis continued his reflections:
All too often we look at life and reality with downcast eyes; we fix our gaze only on this passing day, disenchanted by the future, concerned only with ourselves and our needs, settled into the prison of our apathy, even as we keep complaining that things will never change. In this way, we halt before the tomb of resignation and fatalism; we bury the joy of living. Yet tonight the Lord wants to give us different eyes, alive with hope that fear, pain and death will not have the last word over us. Thanks to Jesus’ paschal mystery, we can make the leap from nothingness to life. “Death will no longer be able to rob our life” (K. RAHNER), for that life is now completely and eternally embraced by the boundless love of God. True, death can fill us with dread; it can paralyze us. But the Lord is risen! Let us lift up our gaze, remove the veil of sadness and sorrow from our eyes, and open our hearts to the hope that God brings!
Whenever we think we have understood everything there is to know about God, and can pigeonhole him in our own ideas and categories, let us repeat to ourselves: He is not here! Whenever we seek him only in times of trouble and moments of need, only to set him aside and forget about him in the rest of our daily life and decisions, let us repeat: He is not here! And whenever we think we can imprison him in our words and our customary ways of thinking and acting, and neglect to seek him in the darkest corners of life, where people weep, struggle, suffer and hope, let us repeat: He is not here!
For disciples of Jesus, the hope that Easter brings cannot end with ourselves, however. It must flow outwards into evangelization and mission. By sharing the saving message of the Risen Lord, others may also share in our joy, and together we can build peace in a world torn apart by war:
Easter did not occur simply to console those who mourned the death of Jesus, but to open hearts to the extraordinary message of God’s triumph over evil and death. The light of the resurrection was not meant to let the women bask in a transport of joy, but to generate missionary disciples who “return from the tomb” (v. 9) in order to bring to all the Gospel of the risen Christ. That is why, after seeing and hearing, the women ran to proclaim to the disciples the joy of the resurrection. They knew that the others might think they were mad; indeed, the Gospel says that the women’s words “seemed to them an idle tale” (v. 11). Yet those women were not concerned for their reputation, for preserving their image; they did not contain their emotions or measure their words. Their hearts were enflamed only with the desire to convey the news, the proclamation: “The Lord is risen!”.
How beautiful is a Church that can run this way through the streets of our world! Without fear, without schemes and stratagems, but solely with the desire to lead everyone to the joy of the Gospel. That is what we are called to do: to experience the risen Christ and to share the experience with others; to roll away the stone from the tomb where we may have enclosed the Lord, in order to spread his joy in the world. Let us make Jesus, the Living One, rise again from all those tombs in which we have sealed him. Let us set him free from the narrow cells in which we have so often imprisoned him. Let us awaken from our peaceful slumber and let him disturb and inconvenience us. Let us bring him into our everyday lives: through gestures of peace in these days marked by the horrors of war, through acts of reconciliation amid broken relationships, acts of compassion towards those in need, acts of justice amid situations of inequality and of truth in the midst of lies. And above all, through works of love and fraternity.
Brothers and sisters our hope has a name: the name of Jesus. He entered the tomb of our sin; he descended to those depths where we feel most lost; he wove his way through the tangles of our fears, bore the weight of our burdens and from the dark abyss of death restored us to life and turned our mourning into joy. Let us celebrate Easter with Christ! He is alive! Today, too, he walks in our midst, changes us and sets us free. Thanks to him, evil has been robbed of its power; failure can no longer hold us back from starting anew; and death has become a passage to the stirrings of new life. For with Jesus, the Risen Lord, no night will last forever; and even in the darkest night, in that darkness, the morning star continues to shine.
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis revisited a past practice of not preaching a homily, instead offering a moment of silent reflection after the proclamation of the Gospel. He offered remarks during the Urbi et Orbi blessing in the afternoon. This blessing “to the city of Rome and the world,” ordinarily offered on Easter and Christmas, always focuses on the conflicts and needs of the world. This year was no different, and Francis spoke at length about our need for the peace the Risen Christ offers during this “Easter of war”:
Jesus, the Crucified One, is risen! He stands in the midst of those who mourned him, locked behind closed doors and full of fear and anguish. He comes to them and says: “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19). He shows the wounds in his hands and feet, and the wound in his side. He is no ghost; it is truly Jesus, the same Jesus who died on the cross and was laid in the tomb. Before the incredulous eyes of the disciples, he repeats: “Peace be with you!” (v. 21).
Our eyes, too, are incredulous on this Easter of war. We have seen all too much blood, all too much violence. Our hearts, too, have been filled with fear and anguish, as so many of our brothers and sisters have had to lock themselves away in order to be safe from bombing. We struggle to believe that Jesus is truly risen, that he has truly triumphed over death. Could it be an illusion? A figment of our imagination?
No, it is not an illusion! Today, more than ever, we hear echoing the Easter proclamation so dear to the Christian East: “Christ is risen! He is truly risen!” Today, more than ever, we need him, at the end of a Lent that has seemed endless. We emerged from two years of pandemic, which took a heavy toll. It was time to come out of the tunnel together, hand in hand, pooling our strengths and resources… Instead, we are showing that we do not yet have within us the spirit of Jesus but the spirit of Cain, who saw Abel not as a brother, but as a rival, and thought about how to eliminate him. We need the crucified and risen Lord so that we can believe in the victory of love, and hope for reconciliation. Today, more than ever, we need him to stand in our midst and repeat to us: “Peace be with you!”
Only he can do it. Today, he alone has the right to speak to us of peace. Jesus alone, for he bears wounds… our wounds. His wounds are indeed ours, for two reasons. They are ours because we inflicted them upon him by our sins, by our hardness of heart, by our fratricidal hatred. They are also ours because he bore them for our sake; he did not cancel them from his glorified body; he chose to keep them forever. They are the indelible seal of his love for us, a perennial act of intercession, so that the heavenly Father, in seeing them, will have mercy upon us and upon the whole world. The wounds on the body of the risen Jesus are the sign of the battle he fought and won for us, won with the weapons of love, so that we might have peace and remain in peace.
As we contemplate those glorious wounds, our incredulous eyes open wide; our hardened hearts break open and we welcome the Easter message: “Peace be with you!”
Brothers and sisters, let us allow the peace of Christ to enter our lives, our homes, our countries!
In particular, Ukraine was top of mind for Francis at this year’s blessing. He continued to draw attention to the Ukrainian victims of aggression and implored the world for peace, as well as for help for millions of refugees displaced by the war.
May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of the cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged. In this terrible night of suffering and death, may a new dawn of hope soon appear! Let there be a decision for peace. May there be an end to the flexing of muscles while people are suffering. Please, please, let us not get used to war! Let us all commit ourselves to imploring peace, from our balconies and in our streets! Peace! May the leaders of nations hear people’s plea for peace. May they listen to that troubling question posed by scientists almost seventy years ago: “Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?” (Russell-Einstein Manifesto, 9 July 1955).
Francis called attention not only to the ongoing war in Ukraine, but to other “forgotten” conflicts in the world, as in Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. He prayed that awareness of the injustice in Ukraine may “make us more concerned about other situations of conflict, suffering, and sorrow, situations that affect all too many areas of our world, situations that we cannot overlook and do not want to forget.” Of particular mention were the indigenous peoples of Canada, representatives of whom he recently met and to whom he apologized for harms done in the name of the Church, especially to children.
Faced with the continuing signs of war, as well as the many painful setbacks to life, Jesus Christ, the victor over sin, fear and death, exhorts us not to surrender to evil and violence. Brothers and sisters, may we be won over by the peace of Christ! Peace is possible; peace is a duty; peace is everyone’s primary responsibility!
Image: Pope Francis imparts Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing. Vatican News.
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Rachel Amiri serves as Production Editor for Where Peter Is and has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.