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Pope marks Good Friday with faithful at Colosseum; Mentions economic crisis in homily on suffering

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged those threatened by unemployment and other economic woes to draw courage and strength from the suffering of the crucified Jesus Christ as the pontiff presided over a Good Friday candlelit Way of the Cross procession at the ancient Colosseum.

Benedict, who turns 85 on April 16, didn't carry the cross during the hourlong procession itself. Instead, he listened intently to meditations on suffering that he asked an elderly Italian couple to compose for the traditional ceremony. Then, as the final reflection was read aloud, the pontiff was handed the slender, lightweight wooden cross, which he held steadily for a few minutes.

Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and Romans jammed the boulevard outside the Colosseum and the ancient Roman Forum to pray with him on a mild, cloudy night and listen to hymns.

Faithful clutched candles and prayer books. A few held palms or olive branches they had saved from Palm Sunday, which opened solemn Holy Week ceremonies in the Catholic Church.

"The experience of suffering and of the cross touches all mankind. It touches the family, too," the pope said in a brief homily at the end of the procession, which he observed from an elevated landing.

Dressed in red robes to symbolize the blood shed by Jesus, the pope added that "these days, too, the situation of many families is made worse by the threat of unemployment and other negative effects of the economic crisis," such as worry about the future of young people.

But Benedict advised families to "look to Christ's cross. There we can find the courage and strength to press on."

Meanwhile, Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Land commemorated the crucifixion of Christ in prayers and processions through Jerusalem's Old City.

Christian pilgrims filled the cobblestone alleyways of the Old City along the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the "Way of Suffering." They followed his 14 stations, ending at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Tradition says the church was built on the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

In the town of Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem, Palestinian Catholics re-enacted Jesus' stations of the cross in their olive groves and vineyards. The Rev. Ibrahim Shomali led the Good Friday procession in Arabic, wearing a white tunic and purple clerical shawl. Dozens of believers followed him, bearing Palestinian flags and olivewood crosses.

For the Catholic and Protestant congregations that observe the new, Gregorian calendar, Good Friday this year coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday, which started at sundown. Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark Easter a week later.

In preparation for Passover eve, Israel's army announced a general closure on the West Bank. That means no Palestinians can enter Israel except those needing medical care. The ban will be lifted today at midnight. It does not apply to Israeli Jews who live in the West Bank.

Israel routinely closes the West Bank during Jewish holidays when crowds in synagogues and other public places are most vulnerable to potential attacks by Palestinian militants.

A decade ago, 29 people were killed on Passover eve as they sat down to a traditional festive meal at a hotel in the Israeli resort of Netanya.

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