I remember the first time I attended the via Crucis at the Colosseum. It was Good Friday of 1998, my first Holy Week in Rome, and my mother had come to visit with my two sisters, the elder very pregnant and the younger a little girl still.
We had a perch above the entrance to the Colosseum metro stop at the base of the colle oppio, and we did not stay for the whole thing — it started to rain, if memory serves — and the fatigue of a day’s hard walking on sampietrini combined with other factors in play to make our staying imprudent and in any case undesirable.
I remember two things quite distinctly: the effect of the torchlight on the air as the evening twilight inevitably failed and gave way to the strangely swallowing dark; and the piercing intonation of the verse and response, Adoramus te Christe et benedicimus tibi, quia per Crucem sanctam tuam redemisti mundum.
It was spectacle, but one I came in later years to see was turned against its perfect, tawdry backdrop: the Cross — instrument of crowd-pleasing judicial murder — and the spectacular shell of the half-ruined Colosseum, locus excellens of Roman bloodsport and a permanent reminder of our universal addiction to cruelty — drive home the spectator-side of our common thrall to gloria mundi.
These recollections came to me after I read of Jean Vanier’s disgrace, and as I read reaction to the news.
Jean Vanier was the founder of l’Arche, a home for people with severe disabilities, which grew from its beginnings in 1965 into an international volunteer network of more than one hundred fifty communities present in nearly forty countries on every habitable continent.
Loved and revered by generations as a living saint, Vanier allegedly used his universal esteem to prey on women who were able-bodied and sound of mind, but weak and vulnerable. Sometimes Vanier seduced them under the pretext of spiritual guidance and sometimes — all according to the report of independent investigators commissioned by l’Arche directors themselves — he shared his victims with Fr Thomas Philippe OP, a priest severely censured in 1956, who was Vanier’s own spiritual guide and master.
Vanier died in May of last year, at 90. I like to think I’m hard boiled and I know I’m hard-bitten, but I praised Vanier this past summer to a group of volunteers who were our guests at a family cookout, friends of an out-of-town relation devoted to serving l’Arche-affiliated communities.
When the news broke, I wrote to a dear friend, who is close to l’Arche and revered Vanier, that I’ve long since come to see the present as a winnowing phase: one of severe mercy, in which our good and patient Lord is letting us be stripped of our heroes.
It is easy to say, “What a heavy reckoning shall be theirs to make on the Last Day!” We know by the cognition of faith that even the righteous man shall tremble naked then, and barely stand. What reckoning shall we have to make for our idolatries, I wonder, which are accessory to all such wickedness?
He is teaching us — apparently, we shall learn no other way — to say, Ave Crux, spes unica! and really mean it.
Truly, there is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
There is one Holy Cross that saves. The numberless host of God’s holy ones in celestial Jerusalem are the first witnesses to this mighty and awful truth.
I’ve said in these pages — and it bears repeating in days like these — that we must remember that God is good, even and especially as all this gruesome business continues to unfold: that His mercy — the response of self-subsistent Charity to sinful creatures — is severe; stern as death, and not less terrible than His wrath. His Church is true: She is His bride, and she must be spotless; He will not have her any other way.
I recall none of it, but the author of the meditations that accompanied the via Crucis that Good Friday of 1998 was Olivier Clément, the Orthodox theologian and ecumenist. “Jesus,” he prayed at the Second Station:
[D]erision strangely consecrates you: Here you are revested in the purple of kings, head crowned, scepter in hand. But the purple is that of your blood, and innocent blood that flows all over the world. Your crown is made of thorns, which makes the soil grow in cursedness because of our sins. The scepter is a rod that pierces your hand. While those who taunt you, unknowing, tell the truth: You are the king of the Jews.
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