ROME - Pope Francis presided over solemn Good Friday services amid tight security at Rome's Colosseum for the Via Crucis procession. Italian police and army soldiers were on high alert, with Holy Week coinciding with a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic extremists around Italy.
Francis presided at a traditional candle-lit Way of the Cross procession around Rome's ancient Colosseum. Some 20,000 people turned out to take part in the event with the pope on the most somber day in the Christian liturgical calendar, which commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross.
Rome authorities increased security this year with checks carried out as the faithful approached the area. Italian police carried out four raids against suspected supporters of Islamist terrorism, arresting seven people, including one man who was believed to have been planning a truck attack.
The Way of the Cross procession marks 14 events, called stations, beginning with Roman governor Pontius Pilate's condemning Jesus to death, until his burial in a tomb. This year the meditations at each station were written by Catholic high school and college students in keeping with Francis' decision to dedicate 2018 to addressing the hopes and concerns of young Catholics.
At the end, he delivered a meditation of his own, denouncing those who seek power, money and conflict. He prayed that the Catholic Church be always an “ark of salvation, a source of certainty and truth.”
Pope Francis also said many should feel “shame because our generations are leaving young people a world that is fractured by divisions and wars, a world devoured by selfishness where young people, children, the sick and the elderly are marginalized.”
The pope praised those in the Church who are trying to arouse "humanity's sleeping conscience" through their work helping the poor, immigrants, and prison inmates.
Earlier, the pope presided over a solemn Passion of the Lord service in St. Peter's Basilica which was kept open despite several pieces of plaster having come crashing down from a pillar of the church on Thursday. The damage was swiftly repaired.
Thousands of faithful filled the basilica. Francis lay prostrate in prayer on the marble pavement in front of the altar at the start of the chant-filled evening service. Later, the crucifix was carried in procession from the back of the basilica to the pope who then kissed it. The other concelebrants followed his example.
On Holy Saturday, in the evening, the pope will celebrate the solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by the joyful Easter Sunday Mass marking what Christians observe as Christ's resurrection.