By Andrew Hamm
“Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side.” Pope Francis said these words at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., during his 2015 visit to the United States, two and one-half years after he assumed the papacy.
When I head next to St. Patrick’s, on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, I’ll go keenly aware of the faces of those at my side and around me. I’ll be walking with several hundred others for the annual “Way of the Cross.”
The Way of the Cross is a two-mile procession to remember Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, where he died. Music, readings, and reflections, given at stations along the way, remind those present of Jesus’ death. And standing in the sun, silent for hours, makes us a little more aware of our mortality as well.
With the charismatic and humble Francis as pope, the Church in 2015 seemed newly alive, a voice for good re-energized to serve the needs of a modern world. I remember coworkers and friends curious to hear about Francis and Catholic social teaching, finding more that attracted them than they’d expected.
But now nearly four years after Francis’ visit -- which included an address to a joint session of Congress and a Mass in front of 25,000 outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception -- the Church in Washington in 2019 is in the midst of suffering. Former cardinal archbishop Theodore McCarrick was removed from the College of Cardinals and defrocked from the priesthood after the Vatican found him guilty of sexual abuse and misconduct. And Cardinal Donald Wuerl was criticized in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report for how he dealt with certain abuse cases while the bishop of Pittsburgh. Newly appointed Archbishop Wilton Gregory gives me hope for a new beginning, but that won’t come easily.
Since the early 2000s, the Way of the Cross followed a route along the National Mall, but this year’s event will navigate busy areas of downtown on the way to St. Patrick’s. Washington is sometimes called a small town, and the Way of the Cross will stop for different stations at places in the city where I’ve frequently run into friends and acquaintances -- Farragut Square, Franklin Square, Freedom Plaza.
On normal days, I scan the faces of people as I walk the streets of Washington, hoping for familiar ones. Yet this Good Friday I’m not looking forward to whatever reactions we might evoke from those we pass on the sidewalk. I wonder what others might think about us, as we follow a cross and walk as Catholics.
I shouldn’t worry so much about hypothetical looks from imagined faces on the street. Many people may hardly notice us at all, or care. It’s probably all in my head, but still the thought keeps coming back. As I think it over, however, I begin to realize that my sensitivity to this public gesture points to the possibility of a new awareness within myself. When I’m downtown on Good Friday, I’ll be a participant.
At the Way of the Cross the last two years, it was easy for me to act like a spectator. The choir singing, the lector reading, the priest preaching, the individuals carrying the cross: These were the participants. I was just somebody there, not so different from the occasional tourist on the Mall who stopped to observe a moment. To the extent I did anything, my actions were private -- my reflections, my prayers.
This year, it’ll be different. People may again stop to observe, but I’ll sense that they are looking at me -- not the singers, not the readers, not the priest, not the wooden cross. Me, us, the crowd of participants.
All my life I’ve striven to remain observant, even as the recent scandals came to light. More and more I see how I’ve settled for observation --especially of these scandals. I don’t know what this period in time means for the Church. I do know that the upcoming Way of the Cross, with those faces I’m preparing to pass on the way to St. Patrick’s and the sensitivity I expect to feel because of the scandals, is provoking me into a deeper embrace of St. Paul’s words, “Christ’s body is yourselves.” More than ethics, rituals, or structures, the Church is our communion: the few friends with whom I share my life, the millions I’ll never meet, all those wounded who’ve felt compelled to leave, all of us sinners who stay.
“The Lord is the goal of our journey in this world," Pope Francis proclaimed on Ash Wednesday. It’s the promise of the Resurrection, the promise we’ve awaited these 40 days of Lent. But before Easter Sunday comes Good Friday. Before salvation comes the cross.
The annual Way of the Cross will start at 10 a.m. at St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Foggy Bottom. More information about the event is available at this link: http://www.wayofthecrossdc.com/.
(Andrew Hamm is a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda. He works as the blog manager of SCOTUSblog, a news website that covers the U.S. Supreme Court.)
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