ROME (AP) — The war in Ukraine loomed over the traditional Good Friday Colosseum procession in Rome, after the Vatican's choice of a Russian woman to share bearing the cross with a Ukrainian woman had angered Ukrainians.
In an apparent attempt to defuse the objections, when the moment arrived for the two women, who work together at a Rome hospital, to walk with the cross together, the ceremony's participants were invited to pause in "prayerful silence" and pray in their heart for peace in the world.
The original script, written with the women's input, had spoken of prospects for "reconciliation." That wording had sparked protests by both the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See and a Kyiv archbishop.
They objected to projecting what they saw as the idea of reconciliation while Ukraine is ravaged by war unleashed by Russia.
For the first time since before the pandemic, the solemn torchlit procession returned to the ancient arena in Rome Friday night. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists held small, lit candles as Pope Francis, looking pensive and wearing a white coat against the damp night air, sat under a canopy placed on an elevated viewing point.
At each Station of the Cross, reflecting details of Jesus' suffering and death by crucifixion, a different family walked with the cross, and meditations, written by them, were read aloud.
The women were identified only by their first names in interviews on Italian Rai state TV: Irina, a nurse from Ukraine and Albina, a Russian nursing student.
Ahead of the procession, Albina told Rai that it was important to "pray for the children who are no more, for the soldiers who lost their lives and can't even be buried." Irina described the sharing of the cross-carrying as a "great responsibility."
The Vatican didn't respond to the protests. But apparently in reaction to the flap, the original meditation to be read while they shared bearing the cross, was shortened considerably for the procession.
The meditation said that "in the face of death, silence is the most eloquent of words." Participants were then invited to pause iand "pray for peace in the world." The two women looked somberly into each others eyes for a long moment as they carried the cross.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the text was shortened to allow people to stay in "silence and in prayer."
Francis made no reference to the flap. Instead, at the procession's conclusion, he prayed that God "bring adversaries to shake hands, so that they taste reciprocal forgiveness." He also prayed that God "disarm the hand raised by brother against brother, so that where there is hatred, harmony will bloom."
While Francis has denounced the Feb. 24 invasion and attacks on Ukraine as a "sacrilege, he has refrained from naming Russia as the aggressor, although his references to Russian President Vladimir Putin have been clear.
SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops conference, said that several Ukrainian religious media refused this year to broadcast or report on the Colosseum procession in protest.
But other faithful in the world applauded the decision to pair the two women.
In Paris, hundreds of Catholics gathered for Good Friday prayers on the forecourt of Notre Dame cathedral.
Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, who is from the United States, told The AP at Notre Dame that having the two women hold the cross together was a "very moving and meaningful symbol." She added: "I think that real people in the real world are concerned about peace. We want peace, we don't want war."
The faithful were not allowed inside the Paris cathedral, since it is still under reconstruction after a 2019 blaze collapsed its spire and destroyed its roof.
In St. Peter's Basilica, hours ahead of the Colosseum event, Francis, wearing red vestments to symbolize the blood of Jesus, limped up the central aisle for an early evening prayer service. Francis, 85, has been suffering from a knee ligament problem.
Usually at the Good Friday basilica service at the Vatican, the pontiff would prostrate himself in prayer. But this time Francis, hobbled by pain for weeks, didn't do so.
Francis dispatched his official almsgiver, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to Kyiv to lead a Good Friday procession in the capital city of war-ravaged Ukraine. Italian Rai state TV showed the cardinal visiting Borodyanka, where he prayed over some of the bodies and leaned over to touch one, partially covered, body.
Good Friday is one of the main days for Christians during Holy Week, which culminates in Easter, on Sunday.
In Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of faithful traditionally converge on the Old City to visit sacred sites during Holy Week, Palestinians and Israeli police clashed Friday at the Al-Aqsa mosque. The site is sacred to Jews and Muslims. This year, Ramadan coincides with Passover as well as Holy Week.
Medics in Jerusalem said more than 150 Palestinians were injured in the most serious violence at the site in nearly a year.
John Leicester and Oleg Cetinic contributed from Paris.