JERUSALEM — The sound of schoolboys playing and roughhousing echoes off stone walls as they run up an alley on their way home after a day of classes. An elderly man follows, admonishing them to settle down and stop disturbing the neighborhood.
Shopkeepers urge visitors to check out their wares. “What can I show you?” is a regular refrain.
Two fashionably dressed young women walk briskly, talking quietly, smiles on their faces. The sound of their ankle-high boots striking the stone walkway announce their presence. A few men look up to catch a glimpse.
Even on a cold, foggy day with a steady rain falling — as it was yesterday — the sights and sounds along the 2,000-foot path that Jesus is believed to have followed to Golgotha leaves a multitude of thoughts and questions: What was Mary thinking as she saw her son pass? Did Simon of Cyrene volunteer to help Christ struggling with his cross, or did the Roman soldiers force him to step in because he said something that raised their ire? How did Jesus keep going after falling, not once, but twice onto the hard stone pavement — with people who did not know him likely jeering all around? Who were the crying women he met? Were they mothers? Friends of Mary? Followers of their messiah? Did Jesus think he could escape or did he face the inevitable knowing he was carrying out a plan far greater than he could ever imagine?
The Via Dolorosa is most easily reached by entering through the Lions’ Gate — also known as St. Stephen’s Gate — on the east side of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Along the path, simple black round metal markers bearing Roman numerals indicate the first nine Stations of the Cross. In several locations churches have been built to recall a specific incident in the final hours of Christ’s life.
The final five stations are commemorated inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a structure dating to at least the fourth century. During excavation, St. Helena is said to have discovered pieces of the original cross at the site.
Hundreds of pilgrims crowd into the church daily. Some have followed the Via Dolorosa; others have come to venerate the place where Christ died, was buried and rose from the dead. They patiently wait to see relics, pray at Christ’s tomb and view the rock where the three crosses are believed to have been erected. Some kneel, some weep, some watch in silence. During Lent, the number of pilgrims visiting the church will increase until events culminate in the Easter triduum.
The church remains under the shared administration of several Christian churches under a long-ago arrangement. It is home to Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.
It remains the holiest place on earth for Christians.
Dennis Sadowski is traveling in the Holy Land with other Catholic journalists from the United States under the auspices of the Catholic Press Association in an arrangement with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.