The Way of the Cross procession passes by and through a rubbish dump in Mbikko, Uganda

Stations of the Cross are held throughout the world, in very different ways. Fr Fons, a Mill Hill Missionary, tells us about his experience in Uganda.

There was a heavy tropical downpour early on Good Friday morning in Jinja. I planned to follow the stations of cross at Mbikko, just a few miles away across the Nile River. Years of missionary experience in rural Congo had taught me that when it rains on a Sunday morning only a small trickle of people come to Mass, for understandable reasons. But mercifully the rain stopped towards 10am, so I decided to try my luck.

To my surprise, people were already gathered and waiting at the starting point at Njeru Town Council. At about 11am the opening ceremony got on the way with a prayer and a hymn. But an essential item was missing: the wooden cross which different groups were to carry from station to station had not yet arrived!

Our patience was not put to the test for long. After a few minutes a battered pick-up pulled up carrying not only the expected cross, but also additional powerful sound equipment.

Carrying the cross

The sun was now blazing again at full force on our steadily growing group of way-of-the-cross-farers. Young mothers carrying babies on their backs delicately covered the heads of their charges with pieces of cloth.

The first group to carry the cross were the priests. I gave a symbolic helping hand – the cross after all was not heavy. At each station a different group would carry the cross to the following station. Professionals, the women’s guild, politicians, religious, students and even the children got their turn to lead the pilgrims to the next stage.

The cross: smack in the middle of daily life

We passed along market stalls, in front of shops and bars, and even made one of our stops at a petrol station!  Despite the hustle and bustle around us and the constant din of the traffic everyone listened attentively. At each station,  chosen gospel texts were read out in Luganda, one of the most widely spoken languages in Uganda. Many people clutched a rosary for quiet prayer and meditation during the fairly long walks between the different stations. Others held up their own small home-made crosses when we paused for prayer.

This was really a people’s way of the cross. It placed the cross smack in the middle of the daily lives and ordinary goings-on of the inhabitants of Mbikko.

Meeting God… even in a rubbish dump

At one station, we halted close to a huge rubbish dump. We passed over and around it on our way to the next station. It made me think of what Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta once told a fellow Mill Hill missionary in India when he asked her how he could meet God. ‘It will happen to you a few times a year,’ she told him, ‘that you meet someone who puts you with both feet on the ground, smack in the middle of the messiness of human existence. And you will know instinctively: I have to drop everything to attend to this person. That is a divine invitation….Does that happen to you?’

I returned humbled and somewhat the worse for wear – we walked in the blazing sun for a solid three hours and it showed on my overexposed skin – from this amazing and hugely inspiring experience.  Maybe this is what Pope Francis has in mind when he speaks of the ‘smell of the sheep.’

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