It was the first time the traditional event on Good Friday, which marks the day Jesus Christ died on the cross in the Christian calendar, was held at the Roman monument since 2019, due to the Covid pandemic.
It also comes two days before Easter, Christianity’s most important holiday.
The pope, who has repeatedly condemned the conflict in Ukraine, and has called for an Easter ceasefire, prayed that the “adversaries shake hands” and “taste mutual forgiveness”.
“Disarm the raised hand of brother against brother,” he said.
“I have lived in Rome for more than 30 years but today it seemed very important to come,” Stefania Cutolo, a 52-year-old Italian teacher, told AFP as a choir rehearsed for the evening event.
“The message tonight, after two years of closure due to the pandemic, is doubly important. In this context where nationalism is returning to Europe, we must act,” she added.
Shortly after 9pm (1900 GMT), in front of 10,000 faithful, the Pontiff opened this highlight of Holy Week.
Organised since 1964 in the sumptuously illuminated Roman amphitheatre, the Way of the Cross event was held in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican for the last two years, with very low attendances amid the health crisis.
“We meet the whole world here, we hear all languages. It’s marvellous,” enthused Marie-Agnes Bethouart, 71, who arrived at Friday’s event with her husband and two grandsons.
Among the crowd, a yellow and blue flag stood out among the candles. They are the colours of Ukraine.
Among the families who were entrusted with carrying the crucifix at each of the 14 stations of the cross were two women, one Russian and one Ukrainian, who are life-long friends.
The women carried the cross during one portion of the Way of the Cross, the traditional procession that commemorates the 14 stations of Jesus’ suffering and death, from his condemnation to his burial.
But the Vatican’s initiative, intended as a gesture of reconciliation in the face of the war that began February 24, was not well received by Ukrainian officials.
On Tuesday, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Bishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, denounced an “inappropriate, premature and ambiguous idea, which does not take into account the context of Russia’s military
For his part, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See said he “shared the general concern”.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the Ukrainian media boycotted the broadcast of the ceremony, while the Vatican had added commentary in Ukrainian and Russian for the broadcast.
In the crowd at the event, Anastasia Goncharova, an 18-year-old tourist from Kyiv, said “I don’t think it’s a really good idea because we are no longer brother nations. They are killing our children, they are raping our
children, stealing our house. It’s disgusting”
In the end the two Russian and Ukrainian friends did carry the crucifix together.
A contemplative silence replaced an original text for the occasion, which was intended to deal more specifically with the war in Ukraine.
Most of those attending welcomed the Vatican’s Russia-Ukraine initiative.
“It is the cross, and therefore the pain of these two peoples, but also hope, because we believe that after the war there will be peace. It is very beautiful,” said Bethouart.