Image: Pope Benedict XVI holds the cross
Andreas Solaro  /  AFP - Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI recalled the systematic martyrdom of Christians under the Roman Empire during a Good Friday service in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican. Benedict then presided over the Stations of the Cross ceremony at Rome's Colosseum.
updated 3/21/2008 7:13:26 PM ET 2008-03-21T23:13:26

Pope Benedict XVI presided over the Good Friday night Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum during a driving rainstorm but did not carry the cross as planned during the tradition, which was dedicated to religious freedom this year.

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.

Three days of strenuous activity for pope

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.

Earlier Friday, thousands of Christians from around the world crowded the stone alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City to mark Good Friday, retracing the route the Bible says Jesus took to his crucifixion.Many pilgrims prayed in the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which tradition holds was the site of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Some chanted hymns, while others prostrated themselves on a smooth stone slab marking the spot where Jesus' body was believed to have been placed after being removed from the cross.

At the start of the procession Rome, Benedict prayed to God, saying, “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 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.

Persecutions of Catholics cited
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.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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