Good Friday’s meditations on the 14 Stations of the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on April 14, 2017, have been entrusted by Pope Francis to a woman: French biblicist Anne-Marie Pelletier.
Mother of three children, Anne-Marie Pelletier, 70, is an expert in biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. She is a recipient of the 2014 Ratzinger Prize of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. In a press release published on March 31, the Foundation expresses its “high esteem” for the biblicist and rejoices that she was entrusted with “this very important mission.”
The theologian has just contributed to a work published by the Foundation for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 90th birthday on April 16. The work Cooperatores Veritatis brings together the essays of 13 researchers who have received the Ratzinger Prize since 2011.
Associate Professor of Modern Literature and Doctor of Sciences of Religions from the University of Paris VIII with a thesis entitled “Readings of the Canticle of Canticles, of the Enigma of the Meaning of the Figures for the Reader” (1986), Anne-Marie Pelletier has taught Linguistics and Comparative Literature at the University of Paris X then of Marne-la-Vallee, as well as the Theology of Marriage at the Catholic Institute of Paris. Since 1993, she has been teaching exegesis at the Notre Dame Faculty of the Paris Seminary.
She has also taught the Sciences of Religions at the European Institute (IESR) within the Practical School of Higher Studies. Engaged in the dialogue with Jews, she has carried out research activities as a member of the department “Judaism and Christianity” at the College des Bernardins and was Vice-President of the Jews and Christians Service of Information and Documentation (SIDIC). Anne-Marie Pelletier has taken part, at the Holy See, in different congresses and was an auditor at the 2001 Synod of Bishops on the role of the Bishop. She has also intervened regularly in the monastic world in France and Belgium.
Member of the French Catholic Association for the Study of the Bible (ACFEB) and of the Jean-Marie Lustiger Institute, she is dedicated, in addition, to the issue of woman in Christianity and in the Church. She has notably published the work “Christianity and Women: Twenty Years of History” (Cerf 2001). Among her other publications, there are numerous works of biblical exegesis, including on the Canticle of Canticles and the Book of Isaiah.
The Way of the Cross, which will take place at night with Pope Francis, will begin from the Colosseum at 9:15 pm. It will unfold from within the Colosseum to the slopes of the Palatine.
Below is Zenit’s exclusive interview with the French biblicist:
ZENIT: The Way of the Cross at the Colosseum will be broadcasted on Mondovision: for some, perhaps, it might be a first encounter with a Christian tradition that is difficult to understand. It might be that one only sees a bloody memory of tortures and a capital execution. What is the Way of the Cross, especially on this Great Friday? And in this place. To what condition is it not the telling of a story of an appalling sorrow?
In fact, this celebration of Holy Friday at the Colosseum offers the crowds of the world the possibility of being in contact with the heart of the Christian faith: the cross of Christ, “scandal for the Jews, folly for the Greeks,” as Paul says, and yet the revealing of the wisdom of God that surpasses all our human wisdom. All those who, near or far, believers or altogether ignorant of Christ, will join this evening, by choice or by chance, the prayer of Pope Francis and of the Church, will find themselves in the presence of this reality, which we confess touches humanity in a decisive way, even if it still remains in the chiaroscuro, while awaiting its final manifestation.
Hence, the proclamation brought by this Way of the Cross is, potentially, at the measure of the whole world. However, this also means that, potentially, the misunderstanding can also be at a similar measure. Because, finally, to the human view, what is given to be seen in the last hours of Jesus’ life, resembles terribly what we call “the banality of evil,” that daily <reality> of our world full of violence, lies, persecuted vulnerable human beings, chased or massacred. Now, let us admit it, if it is about just seen in Jesus an innocent delivered to death, in the innumerable list of victims of history, the memory of His Passion cannot be of any help to us. The gassing of small children of Khan Cheikhoun, in recent days, suffices amply to recall that human cruelty is a fathomless abyss.
Hence, it is about our entering in this Way of the Cross, and drawing others who are truly Christians, namely, as witnesses of the incredible truth dissimulated in the failure and death of Jesus. We must acknowledge and witness that, carried out in these events – oh absolute and overwhelming surprise – is a work of power and of life, which is God’s very victory over the powers of death at work in our world, and which have their root in each one’s heart.
To do this, therefore, is the great need for us to recognize who the condemned figure is who expires on the cross. That we recognize how it is God Himself, in His Son, who comes to inhabit in our darkness to make us come out of it! And that, in a way that, evidently, defies everything that we can imagine of God, of His power, of His presence in our history. I like to say that, at the hour of the Passion, in Jesus, God is there where He should not be. And even, going to the end of the paradox, I would dare to say that He is there where He is not. That is to say that He is at the heart of all that normally contradicts and rejects Him: our violence, our hatreds, all that is the grimacing disfiguration of man as God created him and wishes him to be. However, let us agree that the paradox is such that one can evidently cross His path and perceive nothing of all that. As so many of our contemporaries around us will do so, who will live these holy days in complete indifference; as the majority will do who come across Jesus on the way to Golgotha. But the Gospels attest also that at the most desperate moment of this way, the eyes of some were opened on the incredible truth, such as the Roman Centurion, who in face of Jesus’ death confessed “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). Or just before, according to Luke, the condemned <thief> who recognized mysteriously – not only the justice, but the royalty of Him who was crucified next to him and entrusted himself to Him in hope (“Remember me when you come in your kingly power,” (Luke 23:42). Let us not forget either how, it is the preaching of the cross, and it alone, which Paul invokes when he reminds the Corinthians how they entered the faith in Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:2). Christian history attests to this power of the cross, capable of introducing those who hold themselves in its presence to the secret of the grace that it reveals.
However, it is evidently essential that Christians not screen the message of the cross by enclosing it in a sorrow that deforms it and renders it inaccessible. It is necessary for us to say and say again that Jesus did not come among men to die. He came to live and to make the life of God circulate in humanity, by overcoming the sin that consigns us to death under all the forms it takes within our lives. In this regard, we must acknowledge that some of our spiritualities have allowed themselves to be fascinated by a very unhealthy way of suffering. They have exalted it dangerously, as they were able to orchestrate an unbearable theme, speaking of the Father’s vengeance that exacted the blood of the Son. Sad manifestation of our remaining accomplices of evil, of which we declare we have been delivered by Christ – a troubling spiritual problem . . . In any case, on writing this Way of the Cross, I have not ceased to wish that the truth be said of the victory that, already, been won through “the love to the end” lived by Jesus by delivering Himself into the hands of the violent that we are. Let us recall that Saint John’s Gospel speaks of “glorification” when speaking of Jesus’ Hour, this Hour in which “all is accomplished,” when He expires on the cross (John 17).
ZENIT: In a homily, recently, Pope Francis invited to an examination of conscience: how do I carry the cross, as a badge, as a jewel? Jesus carries His cross then it is the cross that caries Him. How is it sign of life for humanity prisoner of evil – the newspapers are full of examples – or that pierces the suffering? How to carry the cross?
Yes, it is certainly about the way in which we render witness to the cross that Pope Francis questioned us. Because the cross is the absolute testimony of the vulnerability to which God consented to reach and save us. Now, if He delivered Himself into the hands of men at the time of Caiaphas and Pilate, He continues to deliver Himself today. And, particularly, He exposes Himself to our witness, and the latter is far from being always fitting, when it is not diverted. In fact, we know well that, even in Christian land, one can seize the cross, to claim it by inscribing it on soldiers’ belts, or using it as a badge that one carries in a public demonstration. A history of affirming oneself in an identity that cuts the distance with the other, see here the excluded. Finally we know that, in our de-Christianized societies, one can also trivialize the cross, making it a bauble. Derisory diversion, of which we see too little that it is <in fact> an act of derision altogether blasphemous, even if that is not the intention . . . Certainly, we know it — and more definitively than ever since the Passion — that God endures all the blasphemies that mad men pronounce against Him. It is moreover in this patience that He expects them, with the mad, divine thought that their heart will finally open and their eyes be illuminated by the truth that they mistrust. However, as Christians, we must be all the more attentive to give witness of the truth of the cross. The early Church, by the mouth of Saint Irenaeus, for instance, meditated on the immense paradox of the Cross, by associating it to the word of Isaiah: “the government will be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:5): “This cross, he says, on which His arms are nailed, marks His power, it is the sign of his Kingdom.” To be Christian is essentially to confess that evil is overcome, death is defeated in its root, even if today we still remain for a time in a regime of hope, waiting for this victory to be triumphantly manifested at the end of history by the cross of Christ. To be Christian means, while fixing the eyes on the cross, to resist all the defeatism that would make us think that there are definitively situations without a way out. That the world is going, inexorably, towards a sinking in its own violence or in the follies of these new proud powers. Said otherwise, to be Christian is to walk with Christ on His way, without dodging Golgotha in the impregnable confidence that the evils that can mark our lives and those of the world are known by Christ, taken in Him in the gift He makes of His life. And that thus they are held in the power of His Resurrection, which delivers us from fear and despair. All this before the end comes that the Scriptures designate as “new heavens and new earth.”
See, it seems to me, how we must be familiar with the cross. Without forgetting either what it teaches us, in the account of the Passion, the little episode of Simon of Cyrene, the Libyan requisitioned by the soldiers. Nothing tells us that that man was awaiting, particularly, “the consolation of Israel,” as was Mary’s or Simeon’s case. The most likely is that he crossed Jesus’ path without knowing much about the tragedy taking place in those hours at Jerusalem. However, he took on his shoulders, for part of the way, the weight of the cross. And he teaches us, in turn, how to carry our cross, by exercising the compassion on which, the text of Matthew 25 tells us men will be judged at the end: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .’ Thus, each time that we carry a bit of his cross with the unfortunate, we carry Jesus’ cross and we contribute to extend the victory of Christ’s cross in our world.
ZENIT: For the first time a Pope entrusts the meditations of the Colosseum to a lay woman, mother of a family . . . How do you see the women of the Way of the Cross?
The women accompanied this Way alongside men. In a certain way, they struggled as the men did to enter in God’s thoughts, which were being accomplished in these events. Thus Jesus answered the “daughters of Jerusalem”: “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves . . . (Luke 23:28). However, at that hour the women went farther than the men in their accompaniment. At the foot of the cross, we know, John to one side, there were only women. As often <happens>, they are there silently, faithfully present, even there where there is nothing more than ruin and disaster. Obstinate, despite everything, to serve life, even where it is beaten. Women are also there, alongside men this time, at the moment of the burial. Then the Sabbath comes, which immobilizes them. Not altogether, however, as they prepare the spices with which they will honor Jesus’ body as soon as they day dawns. Although their heart is certainly heavy, ignoring all of the infinite surprise that awaited them, they hasten their step, the Gospel tells us, when the Sabbath had passed. Mysterious hastening, which is a contrast to the discouraged walking of the disciples of Emmaus, on the evening of the same day, submerged in their disappointment. And it is thus that it is women who, being the first, learn the unexpected, the unimaginable, the incredible <truth> of what the Father did for the Son, which he will do henceforth for all those that will be engendered by Him to filial life.
From all this, one sees, that there are also good reasons for the Church to have the idea, in her liturgy, to entrust to a feminine voice the ardent memory of Jesus’ last ours, up to the moment He dies on the Cross.
ZENIT: The Way of the Cross at the Colosseum is not an individual devotion; it is a “communal” prayer at Rome, and to be heard by the media, by millions What is particular about this form of communal prayer of crowds? What fruit can be expected?
These fruits are God’s secret! Nothing that happens in such a celebration has to do with marketing . . . What is certain is that the de-multiplication that are tools operate of media transmission brings to light the dimension of what Christians celebrate in these days. Not an event that is only the affair of Christ’s disciples. But Good News, whose expansion to every human being wishes to make known that his life – as that of the whole of humanity – is carried by a love that has power over all that today has the taste of death. Nothing is excluded from this truth. Christians must be witnesses of this, while being careful to close their hand on this secret of grace, so as to protect it against those who contest it or who would like to attack it. Let us recall that the account of the Passion makes very clear the complicity of all – “Jews and Greeks,” to speak with the language of the Scriptures – in Jesus’ condemnation. It is also thus that to us is signified that all “Jews and Greeks,” men and women under the skies, are the recipients of the Gospel of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
ZENIT: What was your reaction to the question that came from “Peter”?
My first reaction: “Me, Lord?,” as Matthew, in Caravaggio’s painting, when Jesus points His finger at him, wonders if he’s understood well . . . Surprise, therefore, and vertigo: that of having to put words, my words, in the name of the Church, on a reality that has the breadth of Creation since in the Passion, it is truly about a re-creation, when Jesus visits our human life, even to death, in the power of the life of God. And then, the second reaction, of joy this time, since this task signified the will of “Peter” that a feminine voice be invited this year to express, in the night of the Colosseum, the dazzling light that dwells in the heart of the Church relaying the faith of Saint John before the mystery of the Incarnation and of the Redemption: “That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life . . . , which we proclaim to you . . so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).