VATICAN CITY, (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI led the world’s Catholics in marking Good Friday amid a sense of growing concern over rebellion against the Church’s dogmas and the fate of Christians in the Middle East.
The pope is set to preside over a sung ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica later on Friday that will commemorate the last hours of Christ’s life.
This will be followed by the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) ceremony by the Colosseum, where thousands of Christians were martyred in Roman times.
The 84-year-old German pope, who turns 85 on April 16, has appeared frail and tired after returning from his trip to Mexico and Cuba last month but has taken part in Holy Week prayers with his characteristic spiritual vigour.
Christians mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Friday in a series of ceremonies culminating on Sunday, when they celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
Easter ceremonies traditionally stress the suffering of the Catholic Church and the world, an emphasis that is being particularly keenly felt this year.
The pope on Thursday issued a stern rebuke to the faithful, condemning those who questioned the Church over clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.
“Recently, a group of priests in a European country published an appeal for disobedience, giving concrete examples of how to be disobedient,” he said.
“As Jean Paul II irrevocably said, the Catholic Church did not receive authorisation (to ordain women) from the Lord,” he added.
The pope’s comments were a rare response to an “appeal to religious disobedience” launched by a group of Austrian priests in 2011.
Benedict said the priests were pushing divisive ideas at a time when the Church finds itself “in an often dramatic situation.”
This year’s prayers for the Stations of the Cross will also emphasise the sense of crisis for traditional family values — a subject close to the pope’s heart as shown in frequent denunciations of gay marriage and divorce.
The reflections have been written by an Italian couple, Danilo and Anna Maria Zanzucchi, from the Focolari, a lay Catholic movement that is favoured by the pope for its strong sense of spirituality inspired by Saint Francis.
“There have been so many blows for our families! So many separations, betrayals! And then divorces, abortions, abandonments!” reads one of the prayers, published by the Vatican’s official daily, L’Osservatore Romano.
The spiritual reflection focus on the dangers of encroaching egoism, consumerism and individualism but make no direct mention of clerical abuse scandals or to the suffering brought by conflict and poverty around the world.
This year’s Holy Week celebrations take place amid concerns over the fate of Christians in the Middle East in the face of rising Islamism and violent conflict, especially in Syria which has a large Christian minority.
Donations from Thursday’s mass were for Syrian war victims and the pope made a personal donation of $100,000 (77,000 euros) to the same cause last weekend.
Senior Church figures have voiced growing concern about Syria in recent days and have called for a rapid enactment of a UN plan to end the fighting.
The religious news agency I.Media said the Vatican is preparing to announce in the coming days that the pope will travel to Lebanon in September where he is expected to make a plea for peace and religious tolerance.