ROME – Shortly after assuring Italians of his closeness during the coronavirus, Pope Francis on Good Friday once again appeared in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square to lead a livestreamed Way of the Cross with meditations for each station written by people involved in prisons.

Every year since 1964, the pope’s Via Crucis has taken place at Rome’s Colosseum. This year, however, it was livestreamed from St. Peter’s Square with only a handful of people present due to restrictions on public gatherings because of the coronavirus. However, some 16,000 viewers tuned in to watch on Vatican Media’s Italian Youtube channel alone. The number who watched on Italian television networks is likely much higher.

The practice of holding the Via Crucis at the Colosseum dates to 1750, when Italian Franciscan priest Saint Leonardo da Porto Maurizio staged it there. It was interrupted from 1871 to 1964, after popes declared themselves “prisoners of the Vatican” due to the fall of the Papal States.

During this year’s prayer, two small groups carried the cross for each of the stations near in the square, where small fires had been lit to mark the path of the cross. One group was made up of inmates and representatives of the prison that wrote the meditations for this year’s Via Crucis, and the other consisted of members of the Vatican’s Health and Hygiene department.

The first eight stations were marked walking around the obelisk in the middle of the square, while for the last six stations the groups processed toward the platform where Pope Francis was sitting in front of the basilica.

This year, the meditations were organized by the chaplaincy of the “Due Palazzi” House of Detention in Padua, Italy. Authors included prisoners, family members of prisoners, a catechist, a civil magistrate, volunteers and a priest who was falsely accused of an unspecified crime and later acquitted. The Vatican published the full text of the meditations earlier in the week.

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Compiled by Father Marco Pozza, chaplain of the prison, and volunteer Tatiana Mario, the meditations are anonymous, and intended to give voice to all prisoners living the same situation worldwide.

Looking out on a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis did not offer a prayer at the end of the Via Crucis as he usually does when the event is held at the Colosseum, but listened in silence to the meditations that had prepared.

Sitting in the middle of the square during the event was the so-called “miraculous crucifix” from the St. Marcellus church on Via del Corso, a typically crowded shopping street, and which has traditionally been turned to by Romans in times of plague.

Prior to the Via Crucis, Pope Francis made a brief call to Italian journalist Lorena Bianchetti, who hosts the “In His Image” weekly show on Italian broadcaster Rai.

In his comments, which were broadcast on the program, Francis said he is close to Italians amid the coronavirus outbreak. Italy currently ranks third in terms of coronavirus infections, but it holds the global lead for fatalities, with 18,849 deaths as of Friday evening.

“Today, in this moment, I am thinking of the crucified Lord and of the many stories of crucifixions in history, to those of today, in this pandemic: Doctors, nurses, sisters, priests…they died on the frontlines, as soldiers, who gave their lives out of love,” he said, saying they were “resistant like Mary under their crosses, their communities, in the hospitals, curing the sick.”

“Today also there are men and women crucified who die out of love and this is the thought that comes to me, right now,” Francis said, assuring of his closeness to those who are suffering the most, especially the victims of the coronavirus.

He stressed the importance of not getting caught up in suffering, but to approach the outbreak “looking up, looking to hope, because hope does not disappoint. It does not take away the pain, but it does not disappoint.”

“Easter always ends in the resurrection and in peace, but it is not a ‘happy end,’” the pope said. Rather, “it is the promise, the commitment of love, which makes you cross this difficult path, but he did it first, and this comforts us and gives us strength.”

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