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Pope to Hold Service in Saint Peter's Basilica For Good Friday

Pope Benedict XVI will hold a solemn service in Saint Peter's Basilica Friday on the Passion of the Lord, in commemoration of Good Friday. Later, he will take part in the traditional "Way of the Cross" procession at Rome's ancient Coliseum. Sabina Castelfranco has this report for VOA from Rome.

This year the "Way of the Cross" procession for Good Friday will have distinctly Chinese overtones at a time of delicate relations between the Vatican and Beijing. The persecution of China's Catholics will be at the heart of a Good Friday prayer written by Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong.

Cardinal Zen says his prayers will refer to China, but not by name to avoid angering Beijing. According to an advance text released by the Vatican, Zen will refer to "living martyrs of the 21st century."

He says the prayers call for enlightenment and courage "for people in authority" to allow religious freedom and recognizes the religious oppression and humiliation experienced by Catholics in many parts of the world.

Cardinal Zen is a key figure for Asian Catholics, including those in China who are split between the official and clandestine Catholic churches.

The cardinal will lead the procession. Unlike previous years, Pope Benedict will only take part in the "Way of the Cross" procession for three of the stations. A Chinese woman will pass the cross to Pope Benedict at the 12th station and he will carry it for the final three legs.

The 80-year-old pope will watch most of the procession from the Palatine Hill. Vatican officials say there is no reason for any health concerns. He is simply conserving his energy for a busy Easter schedule and in view of a trip to the United States in mid-April.

On Holy Thursday, the Pope presided over mass in Saint John Lateran Basilica commemorating Christ's Last Supper with his disciples. Pope Benedict washed and dried the feet of 12 men commemorating Christ's gesture of humility to his apostles on the night before he died.

Earlier Pope Benedict celebrated a Chrism Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica, during which he blessed the oil to be used in the coming year for baptisms and other sacraments.

The pope urged all priests, who renewed their vows, to be vigilant for evil and to stand firm on Church truth despite "the currents of time".

Pope Benedict holds an Easter vigil on Saturday night and on Easter Sunday will deliver an "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message.

His heavy Easter schedule comes in the wake of a threatening message by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, that said the Pope was involved in a 'new crusade' against Islam. The Vatican has rejected the accusations as 'baseless'.