Pilgrims were in reflective mood at last night's extraordinary Via Crucis

Today, roughly 1.5 million pilgrims will walk 5 miles across Madrid, in the baking midday heat, to celebrate the Papal Mass at Cuatro Vientos airfield. The Mass will begin at 9.30 on Sunday morning and they will prepare with Vigil led by Pope Benedict this evening.

The mood of this pilgrimage has changed and it began with the Stations of the Cross last night at the Plaza de Cibeles in the centre of Madrid. There is undoubtedly a carnival atmosphere throughout this pilgrimage. It feels like a universal street party hosted by the Catholic Church. The elation so many felt during the Royal Wedding does not even touch what I have witnessed in Madrid over the past few days.

But the Catholic youth are focused ultimately on the Cross. Anyone who waded through the crowds yesterday evening at Plaza de Cibeles, to witness the Way of the Cross, could not deny this.

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The Italians in Plaza de Mayor, dancing in a large group singing with such charisma about ‘how tight my blue jeans are,’ and then acting out the various ways one might squeeze into them, only an hour later were kneeling in solemn awe at the sacrifice they were commemorating. The young teenage girls giggling away in the local Spanish market, licking
ice-creams were now taciturn statues, still in the peace of the life-giving love they were witnessing at each station.

How ironic that the Church’s moral teachings spark accusations of narrow-mindedness from some liberal elites. The Church is anything but. The plethora of nationalities present in Madrid is already a strong corroboration of the universality of the Church but last night’s Way of the Cross demonstrated what this actually means.

The suffering of Christ was portrayed in a profoundly unique way. The Way of the Cross incorporated the trials and experiences of a universal Church. Victims of drug addiction, earthquakes, persecution, war and marginalization were invited to unite their suffering with Christ’s by carrying the cross to the each station.

It was a relay of suffering, in which the baton of burden was passed on in solidarity; victims united both in their suffering but also their hope at the prospect of salvation and joy at the end.

The English Bishop John Rawsthorne said to me that the Way of the Cross, was “highly political – and I mean that on the best sense of the word.”

He continued: “It was about the world as it really is. It was written by nuns who work with the poor and so it focused on
people who live in very difficult circumstances. It was brilliant and I would like to see the same portrayal back in Britain.”

Tonight’s vigil will be one of solemnity coloured with hope, with the prospect of a glorious end to an unforgettable four days.

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