In the Passion narrative of Jesus, we are introduced to Simon of Cyrene who was compelled to assist Jesus with his Cross. This obscure North African aided our Lord at a time when he was weak and vulnerable, yet he walked with Christ in his sorrowful Passion.
Not much is known about this small person who performed an act of great charity toward our Lord. Yet, with what we know from the Gospels, the New Testament, and the historical record, we can make powerful connections and even more profound interpretations about this seminal character.
What we do know about Simon comes from the passages in which he is mentioned (Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26; Mark 15:21). With each Gospel account, the narrative is the same: Simon, a traveling man, comes across Jesus and is forced to assist him with carrying his cross.
From this, we can conclude that Simon was likely in Jerusalem for Passover, which means he probably was of Jewish background. Jews did not live only in Judea, after all. Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony, was in modern-day Libya in North Africa. In fact, Cyrene happened to be a thriving colony with an estimated Jewish population of 100,000 during the time of Jesus. As such, it would make sense that Simon was in Jerusalem when he was.
Moreover, we know Simon was a family man, as he had two children: Rufus and Alexander. These siblings are only mentioned in Mark’s account, but St. Paul mentions Rufus in Romans 16:13, which is considered to be a reference to Simon’s offspring.
This last-minute helper of Jesus during his Passion signifies a broader picture for Black believers in the body of Christ. For Catholics of African descent, this act of holding up Christ figures Simon of Cyrene as the head representing all of Africa and the universal call of its descendants to unite with the redeemer of the world.
Just as Adam was the head of humanity in creation and in the Fall, and Jesus the head of salvation through his atonement (Romans 5:18-19), Simon signifies all the descendants of Africa scattered throughout the world, who will come to Christ and enter into the Catholic Church.
Moreover, this act of carrying the weight of Christ reveals the true intimacy Africans have with the Church. Despite popular belief, Christianity has always had a pivotal role in the continent.
From the Church’s inception, countless holy men and women from Africa have been influential players in the Church. It’s no surprise that many pioneering desert fathers, saints, Doctors of the Church, martyrs, and holy figures have illuminated the Church with their wisdom. Figures such as St. Anthony of the Desert, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. Augustine, St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, and Blessed Benedict Daswa carry the continent’s banner of Catholic excellence.
“Can it not be said that every African is in some sense a member of the family of Simon of Cyrene. Every African who suffers, indeed every person who suffers, helps Christ to carry His Cross and climbs with him the path to Golgotha in order one day to rise again with him.”
He concluded his remarks with a prayer,
“I pray dear brothers and sisters, that you will be able to recognize yourselves in “Simon of Cyrene.”
Africa has been ravaged by centuries of colonialism, imperialism, political corruption, and natural disasters. Even today, the continent is still plagued by economic and social uncertainty. The continent has surely seen its fair share of insufferable pain. If any continent could fathom the torture of Jesus, it is Africa.
Because she has endured the excruciating torment of abuse, she can walk alongside the Messiah on the Via Dolorosa, the “sorrowful way”. Keeping her brutal past in mind, it is no wonder that Pope Benedict could envision such an uncanny resemblance.
Long before I became Catholic, I was a minor Pan-Africanist reader. Nothing too loud or radical, but learning about the monumental work of Marcus Garvey—himself a Black Catholic—opened my eyes to the idea of Black unity, a worldwide collection of all descendants of Africa living, one day, in unity.
When I became Catholic, I was obsessed with the idea of uniting to a global visible entity that united all believers. After discovering St. Peter Claver, my confirmation saint, and his ministry to slaves in Cartagena, Columbia, I found a newfound appreciation of uniting myself to the Catholic faith: it is the only institution that could truly unite all scattered brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora.
No longer would we be splintered and fractured denominations, but we would all be in the same one, holy, catholic faith. Only the Catholic Church could ransom the African descendants into grace. As I entered the Church on Easter Vigil 2018, I carried this unfathomable peace with me during my confirmation.
It is figures like Simon of Cyrene that give me an immense hope for Catholics of African descent. Despite our trials, suffering unjust treatment, and overcoming countless barriers, we can pick up our cross with the aid of Christ walking with us. We can look to him for a source of strength in our quest for liberation and as the foundation of nourishment for our soul.
Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.