Bad weather, heavy security frame pope's observance

Saturday, April 10, 2004

The Associated Press

ROME -- Braving the chill of a rainy night, Pope John Paul II led prayers at the traditional Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum on Good Friday as thousands of faithful turned out despite concerns over security.

The bad weather and the long day were the latest test of the 83-year-old pontiff's frail health and stamina during Holy Week ceremonies.

Barely two hours earlier, John Paul presided over a two-hour Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica in which he struggled to his knees to pray and kissed a wooden crucifix held to him.

The pope used to carry a lightweight wooden cross in the evening procession, but stopped three years ago because of his difficulty in walking.

On Friday night, wearing white robes, John Paul sat in a chair and observed the procession, which symbolically traces Christ's path to his Crucifixion.

Many faithful stood under umbrellas in pouring rain for hours to get a good view of the procession. The rain stopped shortly before the pope arrived at the Colosseum, but the early spring night air was bone-chilling.

"Brothers and sisters, yet again we are reunited in following the Lord Jesus on the path that led him to Calvary," the pope said in an opening prayer.

Pilgrims and tourists passed through metal detectors to enter the basilica, one of a number of security measures taken in Rome.

Italian officials said security has been increased at the Vatican, monuments, churches and train stations for the holidays, calling the steps "routine" and stressing there have been no specific threats. Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading to St. Peter's Square, is closed to overnight traffic during the Easter period -- a measure also enforced over Christmas.

Good Friday observances were also held in Jerusalem's Old City.

Thousands of Christians, some carrying large crosses or wearing crowns of thorns, walked the cobblestone streets of the Via Dolorosa, the route tradition says Christ took to his crucifixion. The pilgrims included groups from Russia, Poland, Greece, the Philippines and Ethiopia.

This year, Easter Week is marked at the same time by both Orthodox and Western Christians, which generally follow different calendars. Easter Week also overlaps with the weeklong Jewish Passover holiday.

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