ROME: April 10, 2009. Pope Benedict XVI on Friday presided over a "Way of the Cross" procession recalling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Rome's Colosseum, a sombre ceremony darkened further by Italy's earthquake disaster.
Taking up a symbolic wooden cross for the final stage of the walk, the pope said he prayed for "all those who suffer" in the Abruzzo region, wishing that "even for them the star of hope and the light of the risen Lord will appear."
Thousands of pilgrims holding glowing candles were on hand for the Good Friday procession marking the 14 Stations of the Cross, commemorating the path Jesus took to his execution in one of Christendom's most solemn observances.
"When a calamity claims its victims, our confidence is shaken and our faith is tested," read a meditation penned for the occasion by archbishop of the Indian diocese of Guwahati in Assam state, Monsignor Thomas Menamparampil.
"But all is not lost," the meditation added.
The words, written well in advance of the Good Friday observance and Monday's earthquake, captured the grief of the Italian nation as victims of the disaster in the central Abruzzo region were laid to rest in mainly Catholic Italy.
The pope, who will turn 82 on Thursday, sent a message to an emotional funeral Friday for 205 of the quake victims.
"In this tragic hour ... I feel spiritually close to you and share your anguish," said the message read out by his personal secretary Georg Ganswein.
Catholics suffering persecution in India were the focus of this year's Way of the Cross procession.
The Indian archbishop's meditations also referred to "violence beyond credulity: murders, violence against women and children, hostage-takings, extortion, ethnic conflicts, urban violence, physical and mental torture, human rights violations."
He denounced violence against Christians in India's Orissa state that claimed at least 35 lives last year and resulted in numerous churches being burned to the ground.
Hardline Hindu groups have long accused missionaries of bribing poor tribes people and low-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity by offering free education and health care.
About 2.3 percent of India's billion-plus population is Christian.
The Way of the Cross procession was revived by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
For the first two years of Benedict's papacy he walked the entire circuit of the Way of the Cross, but on Friday, as in 2008, he presided over the event from the adjacent Palatine Hill overlooking the Colosseum.
According to legend, Christians were thrown to the lions during the persecution at the Colosseum of the first three centuries of Christianity.
Saturday evening Benedict will hold an Easter vigil in St Peter's Square, where he will also celebrate Easter Mass on Sunday to be followed by his "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing.