Against the backdrop of Rome’s Colosseum, perhaps the most iconic scene associated with Christian persecution anywhere in the world, Pope Francis led the traditional Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, recalling the path of Christ’s passion.

Among the group of pilgrims who carried the cross through the 14 stations was a family from Syria and a nun from Iraq, both countries marred by war and religious fundamentalism.

Speaking to Christ in the form of prayer, Francis expressed “shame” for “our generations that are leaving the young a world fractured by division and wars; a word devoured by selfishness where young people, children, the infirm, the elderly are marginalized.”

He spoke of the shame caused by many people, “including some of your ministers, who allowed themselves to be deceived by ambition and vainglory, losing their dignity and their first love.”

And he spoke of hope, including that which comes from Christ’s cross, “fruit of the greed and cowardice of so many doctors of the Law and hypocrites,” since the Resurrection sprang from it, “turning the darkness of the tomb into the splendor of the dawn of Sunday without sunset, teaching us that your love is our hope.”

Beginning shortly after 9:00 p.m. Rome time, Francis presided over the traditional Via Crucis, with what the Vatican estimated to be 20,000 pilgrims gathered to participate. In addition to the pilgrims from the Middle East, the young women and men- aged between 16 and 27- who were tasked by Francis with writing the meditations, were among those who carried the cross from one station to the other.

Syrian Riad Sargi and his family carried the cross in the seventh station, “Jesus falls for the second time.” Speaking with Vatican News, he said, “we will bear the difficulties and difficult situations on the cross.”

“We will feel the cross very heavy for us to hold on to, because we hold all the suffering for all the Syrian people, from children, families, fathers and mothers,” he said. “We’re looking for Syria to, like Jesus, to be resurrected from the death, the difficulties, and to live again a normal life, hopefully very soon.”

The pope closed the meditations with a prayer, divided in three sections. In the first one, he spoke of the shame humanity has to have today, including for the fact that it has “lost its shame.”

Shame, Francis said, that has to prevail “for having left you alone to suffer for our sins,” such as “having chosen Barabbas and not you, power and not you, appearances and not you God, money and not you, mundanity and not eternity.”

Barabbas is described in the Gospel of Matthew, that details Jesus’ passion, as a “notorious prisoner,” and when the governor Pontius Pilate asked the crowd, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?” the crowd chanted “Barabbas,” and for Christ to be crucified.

“Lord Jesus, give us always the grace of holy shame!” Francis said, closing the first section of his prayer.

The pope then said that “our gaze is also full of repentance,” begging for mercy before Christ’s “eloquent silence.”

“Repentance that sprouts from the certainty that only you can save us from evil, only you can heal us from our leprosy of hatred, of selfishness, of pride, of greed, of vengeance, of avarice, of idolatry, only you can re-embrace us giving us back our filial dignity and rejoice in our return to home, to life,” Francis prayed.

Repentance, he continued, that “springs from feeling our smallness, our nothingness, our vanity;” that is born from “our shame, of the certainty that our heart will remain always restless until it finds you.”

“The repentance of Peter who, when he met your eyes, wept bitterly for having denied you before men,” he said, before closing the section on repentance.

Lastly, he spoke about the “hope,” that comes from knowing that God’s only “measure” when loving is “to love us without measure.”

There is hope, Francis said, in the fact that there are so many missionaries who continue to challenge the “sleeping consciousness” of humanity risking their lives to serve Jesus in the “poor, the rejected, the immigrants, in the unseen, in the exploited, in the hungry and in prisoners.”

Hope lies also, he said, in the fact that despite efforts to “discredit” it, His Church, holy yet made of sinners, continues to be a light that bears witness to Christ’s “unlimited love for humanity,” and an “ark of salvation and a source of certainty and truth.”

The Way of the Cross, according to young people

The tradition of the pope heading the meditation of the Way of the Cross in the Colosseum dates back to the pontificate of Benedict XIV, who died in 1758. He’s the pope who initiated this reflection at the Colosseum, in what’s left of a building that is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome where the blood of many martyred Christians was shed, either being crucified or thrown to the wild beasts.

Yet the modern tradition goes back to Pope Paul VI, who revived it in 1964, and it has been a yearly appointment since then, attracting thousands of pilgrims. St. John Paul II used to carry the Cross himself, and it rapidly became a worldwide television event.

Each year, popes choose the person who writes the meditations for the fourteen stations. This year, a group of 14 young women and men, including several who are still in high school, were tapped for the job, joining a list that includes world-renowned Catholics such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — today Pope emeritus Benedict XVI — and St. John Paul II, but also people of all walks of life, including a group of Lebanese young people; religious sisters, a female theologian and prelates from around the world.

Traditionally, the Way of the Cross procession recalls the path of Christ to his crucifixion, including passages from the Bible, a short meditation and prayer, and this time was no exception.

Each station was written by a different person. For instance, in the sixth station the Way of the Cross reflects on Veronica wiping the face of Jesus.

Cecilia Nardini, who carried the cross in the fifth station, wrote: “I see you, Jesus, wretched and barely recognizable, treated like the least of men. You walk, faltering, to your death, your face bleeding and disfigured, yet, as always, meek and humble, looking up.”

“We know nothing about that woman, Veronica, or her story,” Nardini wrote. “She earns heaven with a simple gesture of charity. She approaches you, sees your suffering face and loves it even more than before. Veronica does not stop at appearances, which today are so important in our image-conscious society. She loves, unconditionally, a face that is unsightly, marred, unlovely and imperfect. That face, your face, Jesus, in its very imperfection, shows the perfection of your love for us.”

Some of them are very much grounded in today’s world, mirroring the concerns many young people have.

One such case was the 11th station, Jesus nailed to the cross, written by Greta Sandri, who begins by asking Jesus “what would I have done in your place?”

“You had the strength to bear the weight of the cross, to meet with disbelief, to be condemned for your provocative words,” she wrote. “Today we can barely swallow a critical comment, as if every word was meant to hurt us.”

Today, she continued, in the world of the internet, people are conditioned by what circulates online, yet Christ’s words are “different.”

“You have forgiven us, you held no grudge, you taught us to offer the other cheek and you kept going, even to the total sacrifice of yourself,” she wrote.

Today, Sandri wrote, people have their eyes glued to their phones and troll others on social networks to “nail others for their every mistake, with no possibility of forgiveness. People ruled by anger, screaming their hatred of one another for the most futile reasons.”

“I look at your wounds and I realize, now, that I would not have had your strength,” the young woman acknowledges. “But I am seated here at your feet, and I strip myself of all hesitation. I get up in order to be closer to you, even if by a fraction of an inch.”

Pope Francis’s decision to have young people write the meditations of the cross is in keeping with this year’s motto from the Vatican, focused on the youth ahead of the upcoming meeting of Catholic bishops to take place in Rome. The synod of bishops, scheduled for October, will focus on young people and their vocation.

Holy Week is the most solemn period of the year for Christians around the world. It began with Palm Sunday, which Francis celebrated in St. Peter’s Square. On Saturday, the pope will preside over the Easter Vigil Mass, and on Sunday he’ll celebrate an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square.