Pope Benedict XVI presides over Good Friday Via Crucis

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Pope Benedict XVI presided over Rome's traditional Good Friday Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) kneeling under a gazebo as the procession, which commemorates Jesus' path to crucifixion, wound round the Coliseum on a cold, wet evening.

22 March 2008

Rome (dpa) - Pope Benedict XVI presided over Rome's traditional Good Friday Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) kneeling under a gazebo as the procession, which commemorates Jesus' path to crucifixion, wound round the Coliseum on a cold, wet evening.

Benedict used his opening prayer to highlight ongoing persecution around the world, making reference to the tradition in Ancient Roman times where Christians were fed to lions in the Coliseum.

"Over the ages we have witnessed the multiplying of Coliseums, there where our brothers in various parts of the world, in continuation with Your (Christ's) Passion are even today being harshly persecuted," said Benedict.

The pontiff then knelt down and from the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman amphitheatre looked on as the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, took up the wooden cross symbolizing Christ's death and led the first of the 14 Stations of the Cross.

During the candle-lit procession, the cross was passed on from person to person, including a Roman Catholic nun from Burkina Faso, a family from Rome, a disabled woman in a wheelchair and several Franciscan friars from a monastery based in the Holy Land.

At each of the 14 intervals the faithful, many huddling under umbrellas, recited prayers, while meditations prepared by the Archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, were also read out.

Benedict, according to the Vatican's programme for the ceremony, was to join the procession at the 12th Station and carry the cross for the remaining stages.

Instead he only held the cross - which was handed to him on the Palatine Hill by a Chinese woman - at the final, 14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb.

No information was immediately available about the change in programme.

The Rome ceremony - similar commemorations took place Friday in Jerusalem and scores of countries around the world - was Benedict's third since his 2005 election as pope.

In the previous two he walked in the entire procession. Ahead of this year's ceremony, the Vatican said the 80-year-old pontiff's participation had been scaled down to allow him to "marshal his strength" for an intense Easter Holy Week schedule.

In keeping with the Chinese overtones at this year's Via Crucis in Rome, many of the thousands who attended clutched copies of the Vatican's official brochure for the ceremony which depicted Christ's Passion through a series of Chinese paintings and engravings.

The programme for the Via Crucis including Cardinal Zen's contributions was compiled before the recent violence in Tibet, but Friday's ceremony took place in the backdrop of an uneasy exchange between the Vatican and Beijing on the situation in the Chinese-ruled Himalayan region.

Earlier in the week Benedict urged an end to violence in Tibet and called on Beijing and the mostly Buddhist pro-independence demonstrators to engage in dialogue. In response, China said no tolerance would be shown to "criminals."

Cardinal Zen, known for his outspokenness on religious freedom in China - where Catholics are divided between those who follow the Beijing-sanctioned church and those who remain loyal to the pope - was not in Rome for the Via Crucis but stayed in Hong Kong to commemorate the event "with his flock," the Vatican said.

Zen in the Vatican's brochure for the Via Crucis wrote that the pope had invited him to pen the meditations "to manifest his (Benedict's) attention for the Great Asiatic continent, in particular the mercy of the Christian faithful in China."

"The Pope wanted me to bring to the Coliseum the voice of those (Chinese) sisters and brothers who are so far away," Zen wrote.

The Vatican's Holy Week celebrations culminate on Easter Sunday with the pope's traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing and message "to the city and the world."

[Copyright dpa 2008]

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