VATICAN CITY --Pope Francis prostrated himself in prayer during a solemn Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica to recall the crucifixion of Jesus. His quiet reflection came hours before he was due at the Colosseum for the Way of the Cross procession that is being held this year under exceptionally tight security.
The 80-year-old pope lay for several minutes before the central altar at the basilica. He wore crimson-colored vestments for the day commemorating the suffering of Jesus.
Papal preacher the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa told the faithful they were recalling the "violent death" of Jesus 2,000 years ago, even though most days now bring news if violent deaths, because the crucifixion "changed forever the very face of death."
Cantalamessa called the cross the definitive "'No' of God to violence, injustice, hate, lies."
Francis was scheduled to give his own homily Friday night at the traditional Way of the Cross procession in the Colosseum in Rome. Hours before the procession was scheduled to start, security was exceedingly tight around the ancient arena.
It's the first time the Good Friday tradition, in which faithful take turns carrying a cross while accompanied by pilgrims holding lit candles, was being held since the truck attacks targeting pedestrians in Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm raised apprehension about big public gatherings in Europe.
Streets surrounding the Colosseum were closed to traffic, armored vehicles blocked intersections, bomb-sniffing dogs were out in force and there was a heavier-than-usual police presence to keep watch.
Accredited media faced exhaustive security checks. Police initially refused to allow ladders and tripods into the press zone. The equipment was eventually permitted after media protested to authorities.
On Thursday, Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a maximum security prison on Holy Thursday in a pre-Easter ritual meant to show his willingness to serve society's most marginal and give them hope. Francis urged the prisoners to help one another out and similarly "be the servant of others."
Francis travelled to the Paliano detention center, located in a fortress south of Rome, to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass at the only Italian prison dedicated to housing mafia turncoats. These "collaborators of justice" can shave time off their sentences by cooperating with anti-mafia prosecutors.
Nevertheless, many of the inmates are serving lengthy terms: Two of the 12 inmates who participated in the foot-washing ceremony are serving life terms. The remaining 10 are due to be released between 2019 and 2073. Francis also visited two other inmates currently in solitary confinement.
In his homily, Francis reminded the inmates that his gesture of washing their feet re-enacted the revolutionary gesture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before he was crucified, essentially doing the work of a slave out of love.