ROME -- Absorbed in prayer, with a view of a bright-lit Coliseum, Pope Francis led thousands of faithful in his first Way of the Cross procession, commemorating the 14 scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Sitting under a red canopy on Good Friday, and wearing a white blazer over his papal cassock, he listened to the gospel as the procession moved from inside the Coliseum to the edges of the ancient Roman Forum.
"Christians must respond to evil with good, taking the cross upon themselves as Jesus did," said Pope Francis at the end of the last station that marks Jesus' burial.
"Let us walk together along the Way of the Cross and let us do so carrying in our hearts this word of love and forgiveness," he said.
The procession, called Via Crucis in Latin, began at 9 p.m. local time as the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Agostino Vallini, carried a wooden cross to the first station. Behind him were friars, seminarians, nuns, worshippers from Lebanon, India, Brazil and Italy, and also a disabled woman, each carrying the cross for one stop. Outside, holding candlelight torches, were pilgrims from all over the world.
"We came for the Via Crucis and to see the new pope from Argentina, who we believe is revolutionizing the church," said Jose Luis Morea, a compatriot of the pontiff, who originally traveled to Rome for a wedding but changed all his plans when on March 13, he heard that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made Pope Francis.
"This wasn't just a normal stations of the cross, because we actually got to see the pope in action," said Austin Boswoth from Oregon, a high school student who came with 26 others and found a spot with a front view of the pope's canopy. "We are just really excited to see him."
Every year on Good Friday, Catholics stop and reflect on the stations of the cross, which begin with the sentencing of Jesus, continue with his flagellation, death on the cross, and his burial. This year, the reflections were entrusted to a recent addition to the College of Cardinals: the Lebanese Béchara Boutros Raï, a fierce advocate of peace in the Middle East.
As the patriarch of the Maronite Church and head of all Eastern Catholic Churches, Cardinal Boutros Raï took this chance to spread a message of peace and interfaith dialogue.
"Enlighten our minds so that they recognize, despite human and religious differences, that a ray of truth shines on all men and women called to walk together with respect for religious freedom," read a lecturer from the podium.
A Lebanese choir accompanied the meditations. The mayor of Rome sat behind the pope's canopy with rows of local officials.
With a gesture, Pope Francis blessed the crowds at the end of procession but didn't come down Palatine Hill facing the Coliseum where the canopy was set up, to kiss babies or shake hands, as he has done in the previous days of Holy Week.
"I do not wish to add too many words," he said. "One word should suffice this evening, that is the cross itself."