Ukraine war weighs on pope’s Good Friday Colosseum ritual
Rome – The war in Ukraine loomed over the traditional Good Friday Colosseum procession in Rome, after the Vatican’s choice of a Russian woman to be among the cross-bearers angered Ukrainians.
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.
Procession participants took turns carrying a plain, tall and slim cross. 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 and based on family experiences, were read aloud. Parents were accompanied by their young children or carried babies in their arms.
Earlier this week, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See and the archbishop of Kyiv denounced the Vatican’s plan to have a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman carry the cross together during the procession. They objected to projecting what they saw as the idea of reconciliation while Ukraine is ravaged by war unleashed by Russia.
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. Friends, they work together at a Rome hospital.
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.
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.
But other faithful in the world applauded the decision to pair the two women, who work together in a palliative care section of a Rome hospital and are friends, to carry the cross during part of the procession, which recalls Jesus’ suffering as he was being brought to his crucifixion and death.
In Paris, hundreds of Catholics gathered for Good Friday prayers on the forecourt of Notre Dame cathedral, and followed its rector on a procession around the island on the Seine River that houses the medieval landmark.
“Well, you know today the pope has a woman from Ukraine and a woman from Russia holding the cross together at one of the Stations of the Cross,” Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec told The AP at Notre Dame. She called that 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,” which brings suffering and pain. That is “not the message of the Christ on the cross.”
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 to take his place 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 said Krajewski on Friday visited two of Ukraine’s hardest-hit locations, Bucha and Borodyanka, both in ruins. At one point, Krajewski prayed over some of the bodies and leaned over to touch one, partially covered, body.
Throughout his papacy, Francis has repeatedly denounced armaments accumulated by nations as unjustified. In an interview broadcast on Italian state TV on Friday, the pope elaborated on his view.
“I understand those governments that buy arms, I understand them. I do not justify them, but I understand them, because we have to defend ourselves,” Francis said. But, he added: “If there were a pattern of peace, this would not be necessary. But we live with this diabolical pattern of killing one another out of the desire for power, the desire for security, the desire for many things.”
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 Israeli city’s Old City to visit sacred sites during Holy Week, Palestinians and Israeli police clashed on 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 that 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.