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Standing in the midst of a giant cross outlined with small torches, Pope Francis said the cross is a reminder of how much evil people are capable of and how much love Jesus had for a sinful humanity.
"It was a heavy cross like the night for those who are abandoned, heavy like the death of a loved one and heavy" because it took on all the pain of evil, he said, presiding over the nighttime Way of the Cross on Good Friday evening.
Standing atop a hillside overlooking Rome's Colosseum, the pope told the thousands of people who gathered with him in prayer that Jesus shows "that evil will not have the last word," and love, mercy and forgiveness will be victorious.
"From the cross we see the monstrosity of mankind when it lets itself be guided by evil. But we also see the immensity of the mercy of God, who doesn't treat us according to our sins, but according to his mercy."
Do not forget those who are sick and abandoned with their own cross, but pray "they find the strength of in the trials of the cross, the hope of God's resurrection and love," he said before imparting his blessing.
The solemn torch-lit service gave powerful voice to the many social and spiritual problems facing the world and to the redeeming power of Christ's sacrifice for humanity.
By passing a bare wooden cross from one group of people to the next in succession, those chosen to lead the Way of the Cross acted as visible representatives of the often-hidden injustices still wounding the world.
Two children held the cross as a reflection was read about the plight of sexually abused minors, and two inmates carried the cross during a reflection on the anguish of imprisonment and torture.
As he did last year, Pope Francis remained on the hillside terrace in silent reflection and prayer as thousands of people, many holding candles, attended the ceremony, which was broadcast by more than 50 television networks around the world.
While he offered a very brief impromptu reflection last year at the end of the ceremony, the Pope was not scheduled to speak this year.
Each year, the Pope chooses a different person or group of people to write the series of prayers and reflections that are read aloud for each of the 14 stations, which commemorate Christ's condemnation, his carrying the cross to Golgotha, his crucifixion and his burial.
This year the Pope picked Italian Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano - a former factory worker, longtime prison chaplain, champion of the unemployed and fiercely outspoken critic of the Italian mafia.
In the meditations, the archbishop, who belongs to Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata, considered how the wounds and suffering of Christ are found in the wounds and suffering of one's neighbours, family, children and world.
For the second station - Jesus takes up his cross - the archbishop criticised the grave consequences of the global economic crisis, such as job insecurity, unemployment, suicide among owners of failing businesses and corruption.
A labourer and a business leader carried the cross, "which weighs upon the world of labour, the injustice shouldered by workers," said the reflection, which was followed by a call for people to respect political life and resolve problems together.
For the fourth station - Jesus meets his mother - two former addicts carried the cross as people meditated on the tears mothers shed for their children sent off to war, dying of cancer from toxic wastelands or lost in "the abyss of drugs or alcohol, especially on Saturday nights".
For the fifth station - Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross - two people living on the street carried the cross as a reflection was read about "finding God in everyone" and sharing "our bread and labour" with others.
For the eighth station - Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem - two women carried the cross, as the meditation deplored domestic violence. "Let us weep for those men who vent on women all their pent-up violence," the prayer said, urging people to weep for women who are "enslaved by fear and exploitation."
But compassion is not enough, the archbishop wrote: "Jesus demands more." Follow his example of offering reassurance and support "so that our children may grow in dignity and hope."
The archbishop's meditations had equally strong words about the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up.
Two children carried the cross for the tenth station - Jesus is stripped of his garments - as the reflection crafted an image of the utter humiliation of Jesus being stripped naked, "covered only by the blood which flowed from his gaping wounds."
"In Jesus, innocent, stripped and tortured, we see the outraged dignity of all the innocent, especially the little ones," the meditation said.
A family held the cross for a reflection on the need for kindness and shared suffering; two older people carried the cross during a reflection on how age and infirmity can become "a great school of wisdom, an encounter with God who is ever patient".
Two Franciscan friars from the Holy Land carried the cross during a meditation on Christ emerging from the fear of death as a sign how forgiveness "renews, heals, transforms and comforts" and ends wars.
Read the full text of the meditations here. Originally published on vatican.va.
Above from top: Candles lit from the paschal candle during an Easter Vigil; while Pope Francis led the Via Crucis meditations in Rome's dramatic Colosseum, Jerusalem, Chennai in India and Lahore in Pakistan were just some of the cities around the world where Christians took to the streets for processions and re-enactments. Photos: CNS, Reuters.