ROME — Pope Francis presided over two Good Friday rites that had at their core strong appeals to protect persecuted Christians around the world, coming one day after Islamic militants attacked a university in Kenya, targeting Christians and killing at least 147 people.
Late in the day, the pontiff presided over the traditional Way of the Cross procession, recalling the path of Christ to his crucifixion. This year a large family, a family with adopted children, religious women, custodians of the Holy Land, and faithful from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, and China, carried a cross around Rome’s Coliseum.
During the second station of this year’s reflection, the thousands gathered around the ruins of the coliseum prayed for religious freedom, remembering that Christian persecution “has happened repeatedly throughout history.”
“In our day, too, men and women are imprisoned, condemned and even slaughtered for the simple reason that they are believers or engaged in promoting justice and peace,” the prayer said.
The prayer asked for the right of religious freedom to spread throughout the world.
The 11th station, when Jesus is nailed to the cross, asks when the death penalty will be abolished and when every form of torture and the violent killing of innocent people will come to an end.
During his short closing reflection, Pope Francis listed the wounds of the crucified Christ, saying that in the cruelty of the passion “we see the cruelty of our actions.”
“In your love,” Francis said, “we see our persecuted siblings, beheaded and crucified because of their faith in you,” amid “our complying silence.”
Earlier in the day, Francis listened to a sermon by the Preacher of the Papal Household, an Italian Capuchin named the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa. Good Friday is among the rare occasions when the pope celebrates a liturgy but does not preach.
“True martyrs for Christ do not die with clenched fists but with their hands joined in prayer,” Cantalamessa said, whose name in Italian literally means “sing the Mass.”
“We have had many recent examples of this,” he said. “Christ is the one who gave the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya by ISIS this past February 22 the strength to die whispering the name of Jesus.”
Christians, Cantalamessa pointed out, aren’t the only victims of the homicidal violence being witnessed in the world. Yet, he said, the fact that in many countries they are the chosen and most frequent victims can’t be ignored.
He said that those who have the fate of their own religion at heart cannot remain indifferent to what is happening.
“Jesus said to his disciples one day, ‘The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God’,” Cantalamessa said. “Perhaps never before have these words found such precise fulfillment as they do today.”
The reflections for the Stations of the Cross this year, written by Italian Bishop Renato Corti, had the theme of God’s protective love for humanity. Beyond persecuted Christians, they also reflected on issues such as the family.
“Jesus, the drama played out between you and your mother in a street of Jerusalem makes us think of so many dramatic family situations in our world,” reflects the fourth station, adding that no one is spared: mothers, fathers, children, grandparents.
“It is easy to judge, but it is more important to put ourselves in the place of others and to help them as best we can,” the meditation says.
The tradition of holding the Way of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday goes back to the pontificate of Benedict XIV, who died in 1758. It was revived in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and under St. John Paul II, who used to carry the Cross himself, it became a worldwide television event.
Popes personally choose the person who writes the meditations for the stations.
Corti, emeritus bishop of the northern Italian diocese of Novara, is often called to lead spiritual exercises for priests and laypeople. He preached St. John Paul II’s final Lenten retreat, in 2005, which ended a week before his death.
On Saturday, Francis will preside over the Easter Vigil Mass, and on Sunday he’ll celebrate an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square.