Pope withdraws from Good Friday event at last minute ‘to preserve health’ | Pope Francis

Pope Francis cancelled his attendance at the Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum at the last minute, in what the Vatican described as an attempt “to preserve his health” ahead of more Easter week engagements.

Francis’ agenda for the next two days consists of an Easter vigil service on Saturday evening, an Easter mass, and the delivery of his twice-annual Urbi et Orbi (to the city and world) message and blessing on Sunday morning.

The 87-year-old’s sudden no-show is likely to renew concerns about his declining strength. Francis uses a cane or a wheelchair to move around due to a knee ailment, and suffers from repeated bouts of bronchitis and influenza.

The Vatican announced the pope’s absence from the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession just as it was about to start, saying in a statement he would follow it remotely from his Vatican residence.

Francis, who had looked fitter this week after weeks in which he struggled to speak in public and cancelled some meetings, also missed the procession last year, after recovering from a four-day hospital stay for bronchitis.

The Via Crucis at the Colosseum is a re-enactment of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, in which participants take turns holding the cross as they walk in and around the ancient Roman arena, stopping to pray and hear meditations.

Nuns, priests, a hermit, charity workers, migrants and disabled people were among those who took part in the service, held in a monument believed to have been a place of martyrdom for early Christians.

Francis personally wrote the meditations for this year, a first in his 11-year papacy. They included praises for meekness and forgiveness in response to acts of evil, and prayers for persecuted Christians and war victims.

The pope, who has called for the Catholic church to become less male-dominated, also hailed the women who helped Jesus while he carried the cross, and pleaded for “those [women] who in our own day are exploited and endure injustice and indignity”.

Earlier on Friday, the pope joined cardinals and bishops for the Passion of the Lord service in St Peter’s Basilica, which featured chants in Latin recounting events from Jesus’ arrest to his burial.

In previous years, Francis would start the service by prostrating himself on the floor of the basilica, but his frail state no longer allows him to do so. Instead, he arrived in a wheelchair and prayed silently in front of the main altar.

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