Pope Francis blesses the faithful with holy water as he celebrates Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
VATICAN CITY — Holy Week in Rome is a colorful and dramatic affair, where the story of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is played out on the streets of the Eternal City. It is a time when pilgrims live out the Easter mystery in the center of Western Christendom, often doing so in front of vacationers who, sipping espressos or Aperol Spritz cocktails, look on like the crowds that witnessed Jesus’ passion 2,000 years ago.
The liturgies started on Palm Sunday, when large leafy palms were taped outside churches in Rome while processions led by priests wearing red vestments spilled out into the streets. In St. Peter’s Basilica, the olive branches towered above the heads of cardinals and bishops as they commemorated Jesus’ joyful entry into Jerusalem, preparing for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
Early on, the pontiff included a radical service element to Holy Week starting soon after his election, when he went to a prison to wash the feet of inmates, including women and Muslims. This year he again visited a prison to celebrate the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper, washing the feet of inmates at a prison in Paliano, known for holding ex-Mafia who became witnesses for the state.
Feet washing was followed by sacrifice when, on Good Friday, Stations of the Cross took place at night in the Colosseum. The pope led a torchlight procession in the place where early Christians were thrown to their death.
This year the meditations were, for the first time, written by a laywoman. Anne-Marie Pelletier, a married mother of three, is a French biblical expert who won the 2014 Ratzinger Prize in theology. She explained that her “non-traditional” reflections aimed to give space to women such as St. Catherine of Siena while highlighting Christ’s suffering with children who are raped, humiliated, tortured and murdered.
After the somber reflection of Good Friday, St. Peter’s square is brought alive on Easter Sunday with a dazzling array of flowers arranged by Dutch florists giving the sense of a resurrection narrative that encompasses the whole of creation. The Mass is followed by the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” — to the city and to the world — blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s and is a moment when the Pope makes an appeal for peace in various parts of the world. There is no shortage of places for him to mention.
At the start of Holy Week the pope condemned a deadly attack on a Coptic church in Egypt during Palm Sunday celebrations, just weeks before his planned visit to Cairo. He made his remarks during the noontime Sunday Angelus address; it later emerged that suicide bombers had attacked two Coptic churches killing at least 40 worshipers and police officers standing guard, in what was reported as the deadliest day of violence against Christians in the country in decades.
On April 28-29, Francis will travel to Egypt for a visit that is being described as a historic moment for Christian-Muslim relations. The visit will see the pope address a conference on peace organized by Al-Azhar University, a major center for Sunni Muslim thought. It was here that President Barack Obama delivered an important speech in 2009 aimed at trying to build bridges with the Arab world.
Building bridges is what the pope has been consistently trying to do with Muslims, and he has gained the respect of Islamic leaders. The Vatican has recently re-established ties with Al-Azhar. The king of Morocco, who claims lineage with the Prophet Mohammed, sent Francis a congratulatory note on the fourth anniversary of his pontificate and recently the pope met with a group of four British imams in Rome following the March 22 Westminster terror attack.
But Francis’ Cairo trip will require a diplomatic balancing act. While he wants religions to work together to combat extremism, he will also be expected to speak out for persecuted Christians, particularly the Copts who suffered the deadly Palm Sunday attacks.
He will, however, be aware of the sensitivities. In 2011, when Pope Benedict XVI called for Christians to be given greater protection in Egypt, Cairo recalled their ambassador to the Holy See, and at the same time Al-Azhar broke off ties with the Vatican. At the time Egypt claimed the pope was interfering in their internal affairs.
Don’t expect Francis to remain silent on this topic as the persecution of Christians by extremists worries Muslim leaders too. In Rome recently Ibrahim Mogra, one of the British imams who had been given a papal audience, said he told senior Vatican officials that the pope must speak out.
“I’ve requested that he [Pope Francis] must raise the questions of Christian minorities in Muslim countries,” the imam, an alumnus of Al-Azhar, told me. “I’m sure His Holiness will register his concern and remind Muslim leaders in Egypt and political leaders that it is their religious and political duty to safeguard the religious rights — and the human rights — of the minority communities.”
A papal intervention would have an impact. While Francis has consistently condemned violence carried out “in the name of God,” he has also been careful to de-couple terrorism from the Islamic faith, something appreciated by Muslim leaders. While in Egypt the pope will attempt to foster peace, arguing that dialogue can change hearts and minds, even in the face of violence. It will be a reminder of that simple Holy Week message: after death on Good Friday comes the new life of Sunday’s Resurrection.