Pope presides over rainy Good Friday procession

March 21, 2008 6:23:28 PM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI presided over the Good Friday nighttime Way of the Cross procession but did not carry the cross as planned during the tradition, which this year paid tribute to Catholics who are persecuted. The pope wore a long white coat as he stood sheltered from the cold, pelting rain under a canopy erected on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Colosseum.

At the end of the procession, Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini handed Benedict the tall, slender, lightweight cross. The pope gripped the cross briefly. Then, in a strong voice, he blessed the crowd of thousands being drenched by the rain and buffeted by gusty winds and told them: "Thank you for being patient under the rain. Happy Easter to you."

The pope was supposed to carry the cross for the final minutes of the more than hour-long procession, taking his turn after a young woman and a young priest from China walked with the symbol of Jesus' crucifixion.

But Vatican officials said that because of the storm, it was decided that the pope, who turns 81 next month and has two more days of strenuous ceremonies in the days ahead to mark Easter, should stay dry under the canopy.

There was no noticeable increase of security during or before the procession. Earlier in the week, Osama bin Laden accused the pope of playing a role in a worldwide campaign against Islam, an accusation the Vatican described as baseless.

Last year on Good Friday, Benedict carried the cross briefly at the start and finish of the procession.

"We find ourselves united on this day, at this hour, and in this place, which reminds us about your so many servants who, centuries ago, amid the roars of hungry lions and the shouts of the amused crowd, let themselves be ripped apart and fatally attacked for loyalty to your name," Benedict prayed to God at the start of the procession.

He was referring to systematic martyrdom of many Christians during the first years of church under the Roman Empire.

The pope lamented that "even today our brothers, in various parts of the world, are still harshly persecuted," and he said the procession was being undertaken in solidarity with persecuted Catholics.

The pontiff, who has been dedicating much of his papacy to the problems of Catholics in China, asked Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen to compose the meditations which are read aloud during procession. Zen has said the Vatican made sure there was nothing "dangerous" in the meditations that might offend Beijing.

Benedict is eager for the Vatican and China's Communist government to establish diplomatic ties.

In one of the meditations, Zen laments the persecution of Catholics in many parts of the world, but he does not mention China by name.

"Illuminate the conscience of authorities so that they will recognize the innocence of (God's) followers," read one prayer recited during the procession. "Give them the courage to respect religious freedom."

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in officially state-sanctioned churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own bishops in defiance of the Vatican.

Millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations, and they risk harassment by Chinese authorities. Some clergy have been jailed in China.

Earlier in the day, the pontiff presided over a long solemn Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica.

Late Saturday night, Benedict is scheduled to celebrate Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, and, on Sunday morning, he leads an expected crowd of tens of thousands of faithful in Mass in St. Peter's Square.


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