Palms, St Peter's, Pope Francis, youth of the world and sixty thousand faithful: what a start to Holy Week.
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It’s Palm Sunday, 7.40am. Flocks of eager pilgrims are already pouring, ticket in hand, to St Peter’s Square here in the heart of the Church.
A silvery sky wraps itself around the marble white collonade and rays of white light gently cascade over the basilica, adorned for Palm Sunday mass.
Great olive trees rest at the foot of the steps, leading the way up to a red velvet altar.
Seats are filled and a buzz of excitement permeates the square, in anticipation of the coming of Christ on this special Sunday that leads us into Holy Week.
Music fills the air.
The procession begins.
To the majestic sound of the organ, young people carrying immense palms high in the air proceed two by two from the great bronze doors and through the piazza.
Trumpets sound. The bishops and cardinals follow the youth, decked in vestments of red and bearing palms forward in their own hands.
A choir’s song throngs the air, with “hosanna” hailed on every lip; a hush ensues as Pope Francis himself joins the procession, head bowed in prayer and followed by his altar servers. The crowds watch him pass, joining him in silent contemplation.
The procession arrives at the middle of the square. With palms held high by youth, bishops and crowd alike, Pope Francis begins with the Sign of the Cross.
“The Lord be with you."
“And with your spirit.”
He begins with the brief reflection: “Jesus enters into Jerusalem to give fulfillment to the mystery of his death and resurrection. Lets accompany with faith and devotion our Saviour in His entrance into the Holy City, and lets give thanks for his continuing until the Cross, so that we may be participants in His resurrection.”
The Deacon reads from the Gospel:
“…Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’…”
The procession then takes up once more and makes its way to the altar amidst thousands of palms swaying in the gentle breeze, ready to welcome Christ to the Holy City.
The Choir sings in harmonies of joy and anticipation “Glory to you, eternal praise, Christ King, Saviour, as the little children one time said in chorus: Hosanna!”
The Holy Father incenses the altar and the mass begins.
First Reading: Isaiah “…For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”
Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” …the sufferings and pain of every heart is sung up in this cry of the Lord’s, joining Him in His suffering on the Cross.
Second Reading: St Paul “…And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”
The Passion of Jesus Christ.
As the Passion begins and the readers walk us through the way of our Lord’s Cross, the skies clear and sunlight beams down over the basilica, piazza and all, keeping us in quiet contemplation of the greatest act of love.
Pope Francis gives his homily. Simple but profound, he calls us all to ask ourselves a question at this beginning of Holy Week after just having heard the Passion of our Lord: “Who am I?”
“Who am I in front of Jesus?” he asks.
“Am I capable of expressing my joy? Of praising Him? or perhaps I distance myself from Him…
“Who am I in front of Jesus who suffers?
“We have heard many names [in the gospel]…
“We’ve heard the name Judas. 30 pieces of silver! Am I like Judas? …who pretended to love and kissed his teacher in order to betray him…Am I a traitor?
“We’ve heard other names…the disciples who didn’t understand anything, and they slept while the Lord suffered. Is my life in slumber?
“Am I like the people who treated Him like a criminal and gave false witness against Him?
“Am I like Pilate? who, when there is a difficult decision to make, washes his hands and doesn’t take responsibility for his actions? Am I a person who condemns others?
“Am I like that crowd who chose Barabbas and gave glory to him because it was more fun to humiliate Jesus?
“Am I like the Soldiers who beat Jesus? who spat on him and took delight in making the Lord suffer?
“Am I like the Cirene who, coming home from a hard day’s work, had the good will to help the Lord carry the Cross?
“Am I like those people who said: if Jesus was truly great He would get down from the Cross and then we would believe in Him?
“Or am I like those courageous people, like the mother of Jesus and the other women who suffered and supported Him in silence?
“Am I like Joseph the hidden disciple who out of love carried the body of Jesus to the tomb?
“Am I like these two Marys who remained at the door of the tomb crying and praying?
“Am I like those authorities who were in front of Pilate saying that Jesus said he would resurrect, so considering this another trick, they asked to guard the tomb…Am I like those who block the tomb? Am I like those who block life to defend a doctrine? Am I like those authorities who don’t want life to come out?"
Some moments of silent reflection, then the piazza stands together for the Creed and the Prayers of the Faithful.
The liturgy of the Eucharist begins.
Sixty thousand faithful from all over the world receive Christ in the Eucharist on St Peter’s Square: truly the beating heart of the Church.
At the end of mass, the young people from Brazil hand over the World Youth Day cross to the youth of Poland (where the next WYD will be held in 2016).
A truly touching and symbolic moment as the great wooden cross is passed hand in hand from youth to youth, on Palm Sunday, the very moment that Pope John Paul II instituted this day for the youth of the world.
One of our Brazilian colleagues, Clarissa Oliveira was fortunate enough to be one of the young people bearing the Cross.
“To carry the WYD cross for me is to be near to Christ” she recounts afterwards. “To take His Cross together with Jesus, along with the Brazilian youth, and hand it over to the Polish youth, is being united with all the youth of the World in Jesus, and to go forward in preparing for another WYD experience in 2016; so to continue the journey of ‘mission’ that Pope Francis also asks of us."
She continues, remembering the experience: "First to be with Jesus in the Cross, then to be with Jesus in the person of the Pope, what is now in my heart is the desire to go forward with this gaze of Jesus who loves us until the end of time, and to bring this to others who don’t know this love."