Thousands join Good Friday service overlooking Ukraine

Thousands of believers on Friday attended the “Way of the Cross” prayer service led by Pope Francis at Rome’s Colosseum, a ceremony overtaken by the war in Ukraine.

It was the first time since 2019 that the traditional event on Good Friday, which marks the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Christian calendar, has been held at the Roman monument due to the Covid pandemic.

It also comes two days before Easter, the most important holiday in Christianity.

The pope, who has repeatedly condemned the conflict in Ukraine and called for an Easter truce, prayed that the “opponents would join hands” and “cost mutual forgiveness”.

“Disarm the raised hand of brother against brother,” he said.

“I’ve lived in Rome for more than 30 years, but today it seemed very important to come,” Stefania Cutolo, a 52-year-old Italian teacher, told AFP as a choir rehearsed for the evening’s event.

Pope Francis waves as he leads the'Way of the Cross' service at the Colosseum monument in Rome Pope Francis waves as he leads the ‘Way of the Cross’ service at the Colosseum monument in Rome Photo: AFP / Filippo MONTEFORTE

“Tonight’s message, after two years of being closed due to the pandemic, is doubly important. In this context, where nationalism is returning to Europe, we must act,” she added.

Just after 21:00 (1900 GMT) the Pope opened this highlight of the Holy Week in front of 10,000 believers.

Organized in the splendidly lit Roman amphitheater since 1964, the Stations of the Cross event has been held in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the past two years, with very low attendance amid the health crisis.

“We meet the whole world here, we hear all languages. It’s wonderful,” said Marie-Agnes Bethouart, 71, who traveled to the event on Friday with her husband and two grandchildren.

A yellow and blue flag rose among the candles in the crowd. These are the colors of Ukraine.

Among the families entrusted with carrying the crucifix at each of the 14 Stations of the Cross were two women, one Russian and one Ukrainian, who are lifelong friends.

The women carried the cross during a section of the Way of the Cross, the traditional procession commemorating the 14 stations of Jesus’ passion and death, from his condemnation to his burial.

Christian worshipers gather at the Colosseum on Friday to take part in the Stations of the Cross in Rome Christian worshipers gather at the Colosseum on Friday to take part in the Stations of the Cross in Rome Photo: AFP / Filippo MONTEFORTE

But the Vatican’s initiative, intended as a gesture of reconciliation in the face of the war that began February 24, was not well received by Ukrainian officials.

On Tuesday, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Bishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk, condemned an “inappropriate, premature and ambiguous idea that does not take into account the context of Russia’s military aggression.”

For his part, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See said he “shared the general concern”.

As a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the Ukrainian media boycotted the broadcast of the ceremony, while the Vatican commented on the broadcast in Ukrainian and Russian.

In the crowd at the event, Anastasia Goncharova, an 18-year-old tourist from Kyiv, said: “I don’t think it’s a really good idea because we’re not brother nations anymore. They kill our children, they rape our children, steal our house. It is disgusting.”

In the end, the two Russian and Ukrainian friends carried the crucifix together.

On this occasion, a contemplative silence replaced an original text that was supposed to deal more specifically with the war in Ukraine.

Most present welcomed the Vatican’s Russia-Ukraine initiative.

“It is the cross and with it the pain of these two peoples, but also hope because we believe that after the war there will be peace. It’s very beautiful,” said Bethouart. Thousands join Good Friday service overlooking Ukraine

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