Why does the Pope’s Stations of the Cross take place at the Colosseum?

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Each year, it is at the Colosseum, an emblematic monument of Rome, that the Pope commemorates one of the essential events of the liturgical year: the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. A look back at the origins and meaning of this tradition which dates back to the 18th century.

While the Church throughout the world commemorates the passion and death of Jesus , the Colosseum is transformed every Good Friday into a giant scene of the Via Crucis , and the slopes of Mount Esquiline, for an hour, materialize those of Golgotha . At nightfall, the ruins of the famous oval-shaped amphitheater are adorned with a play of shadows and lights, and thousands of faithful come to unite their prayers with those of the Pope, in an atmosphere of intense contemplation, around of the cross that Christ carried.  

The Colosseum, in the heart of the historic center of Rome , has long been considered the site of the first Christian martyrs in ancient Rome . Even if archaeological research has since shown that the amphitheater was more the site of the famous gladiator fights of the Roman Empire than that of executions, its reputation has remained connoted with the blood of Christians. It is because of this symbolism that Pope Benedict XIV chose the monument to embody the greatest stations of the cross of the 18th century , at the time when this tradition was beginning to spread throughout Europe. In 1750, the Italian pontiff had 14 Stations and a large cross erected in the center of the Flavian amphitheater.


Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA | I.MEDIA

On September 19, 1756, the same pope dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Passion of Christ and the martyrs. The tradition lasted for more than a century, before falling into disuse with the unification of Italy (1861) and the end of the temporal power of the Church, the pontiff having lost his sovereignty over Roman territory. Then, during Holy Week of 1959, John XXIII again presided over the Via Crucis at the Colosseum. However, it was not until his successor, Paul VI , that this tradition was reborn in a lasting manner, in 1964. It was also under his pontificate that the celebration was broadcast for the first time on television and in color, in 1977.  

Via crucis with painful news

From then on, except for rare exceptions, such as during the covid pandemic, the pontiffs have taken up the torch: each year, the man in white accesses a podium overlooking the Colosseum, to follow the route of the cross carried by groups of faithful, while the great silence of the gathered crowd deafens the distant noise of the traffic of the Eternal City. Certain Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum particularly marked the spirits, such as the last of John Paul II in 2005. The Polish pontiff, who, at the end of his life, followed the celebration from the Apostolic Palace, had entrusted to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – then prefect of the congregation for the Doctrine of the faith – to do the meditations. The text of the man who would become Benedict XVI denounced in barely veiled words the abuses committed by priests, the scandal of which was beginning to break out. “How much defilement there is in the Church, and particularly among those who, in the priesthood, should belong totally to it! », the prefect grieved in these words that have gone down in history. 

In the face of death, silence speaks more eloquently than words.

During his long pontificate, John Paul II entrusted the meditations to personalities from the world of culture, to journalists, to women, including the Swiss nun Minke de Vries, from the Protestant community of Grandchamp, and even to the patriarch Orthodox Bartholomew I. Under Francis’ pontificate, a violent controversy tore apart the Stations of the Cross for the year 2022. Two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Argentine pontiff asked a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman to write the 13th Station, but this initiative seeming to put an aggressor country and an attacked country on the same level had provoked an outcry. 

Finally, the two women carried the cross together, and the text of the meditation was replaced by a time of silence for world peace. “In the face of death, silence is more eloquent than words,” was simply heard echoing through the arena’s loudspeakers.

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