Armoured vehicles and bomb-sniffing dogs used as heavy police presence guards every aspect of Good Friday Way of the Cross procession in Rome
Thousands of people, including nuns, families with toddlers and young tourists, endured exceptionally tight anti-terrorism checks to pray at the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum, where Pope Francis expressed shame over humanitys failings.
Francis, wearing a plain white coat, presided over the traditional evening Way of the Cross procession from a rise overlooking the popular tourist monument as the faithful took turns carrying a cross and meditations were recited to encourage reflection on Jesus suffering and crucifixion.
After the 90-minute-long procession ended, Francis, in a quiet voice, read a prayer he composed that alternated expressing shame for humanitys failings and hope that hardened hearts will become capable of forgiving and loving.
With Easter two days away, Francis said the faithful look to Christ with eyes lowered in shame and with hearts full of hope.
Such shame, he said, derives from all those images of devastation, destruction, shipwrecks, that have become routine in our lives. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have endured hardships at the hands of human traffickers to try to reach Europe, which has increasingly been rejecting them, and thousands have perished at sea during the last few years.
Evoking wars and conflicts, as well as attacks on Christian minorities, Francis also voiced shame for the innocent blood spilled daily by women, children, immigrants and persons persecuted because of the colour of their skin, or for the ethnic or social group they belong to, and for their faith in Jesus.
The pontiff also made a reference to the clergys handling of sexual abuse of minors, saying: shame for all those times that we bishops, priests and other clergy scandalised the church.
Hours before the evocative, candlelit ceremony, pilgrims underwent the first of two rounds of security checks that started while they still were blocks away from the ancient arena. There was a heavier-than-usual police presence keeping watch on every aspect of the event. Anti-terrorism measures have been heightened for large public crowds after several vehicle attacks in Nice, Berlin and other European cities.
Police opened handbags and backpacks. They checked computers, and, in at least one case, asked an Italian woman to open a package. It turned out to be a tray of pastries, and the woman good-naturedly offered one of the sweets to the officer.
Streets surrounding the Colosseum were closed to traffic, armoured vehicles blocked intersections, bomb-sniffing dogs were used and police checked chemical toilets with scanners for explosives near the Colosseum.
Terrorisms repercussions were being felt in Christian communities across the Mediterranean. In Egypt, Coptic churches announced Easter services would be limited to prayers, without festivities. The measure was taken after twin bombings killed 45 people at churches on Palm Sunday.
In Rome, the Good Friday gathering was calm as participants, estimated by Vatican security to number 20,000, clutched candles in the silence of a warm night. Some parents hoisted children on their shoulders so they could watch.
Earlier at the Vatican, Francis prostrated himself in prayer during a service in St Peters Basilica. The 80-year-old pope lay for several minutes before the central altar.