Pope Benedict XVI recalled the martyrdom of early Christians thrown to hungry lions in the Colosseum as he presided over the traditional Good Friday Way of the Cross procession at the ancient arena under a driving rain. ( AP )
The 80-year-old pope wore a long white coat as he stood under a shelter overlooking the procession, which began with Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pontiff's vicar for Rome, taking the first turn at carrying a slender, plain lightweight cross.
"We find ourselves united on this day, at this hour, and in this place, which reminds us about your so many servants who, centuries ago, amid the roars of hungry lions and the shouts of the amused crowd, let themselves be ripped apart and fatally attacked for loyalty to your name," Benedict prayed to God.
He was referring to systematic martyrdom of many Christians during the first years of church under the Roman empire.
There was no noticeable increase of security before the pope's arrival at the Colosseum. Earlier in the week, Osama bin Laden accused the pope of playing a role in a worldwide campaign against Islam, an accusation the Vatican described as baseless.
Romans, tourists and pilgrims, bundled up against gusty winds and driving rain, huddled together under umbrellas to read prayer books and keep the flickering flames of candles dry.
Benedict planned to carry a lightweight cross in the last part of the procession, after a young Chinese woman walked part of the way first, according to the Vatican's program of the event.
Others chosen to hold the cross during the procession included a nun from Burkina Faso, a Roman family and a person in a wheelchair.
The pontiff, who has been dedicating much of his papacy to the problems of Catholics in China, asked Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen to compose the meditations which will be read aloud during the procession commemorating Jesus' suffering before being crucified.
Zen has said the Vatican made sure there was nothing "dangerous" in the meditations that might offend Beijing. Benedict is eager for the Vatican and China's Communist government to establish diplomatic ties.
In one of the meditations, Zen laments the persecution of Catholics in many parts of the world, but he does not mention China by name.
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in officially state-sanctioned churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own bishops in defiance of the Vatican.
Millions of Chines belong to unofficial congregations, and they risk harassment by Chinese authorities. Some clergy have been jailed in China.
Earlier in the day, the pontiff presided over a long solemn Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica.