Pope Francis is to celebrate his first Easter vigil after praying for peace in a Middle East “torn apart by injustice and conflicts” during Good Friday’s ceremonies.
The newly elected Argentine pope will preside over a mass at St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday evening, baptising four adult converts to the Catholic Church during the service: an Albanian, an Italian, a Russian and a US national of Vietnamese origin, according to the Vatican.
The ceremony will mark the end of three days of intensive Easter preparations set to culminate on Sunday when the Vatican’s first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years celebrates Easter mass in front of tens of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter’s Square.
Francis marked Good Friday with a traditional torch-lit ceremony around the Colosseum in Rome, presiding over the re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s last hours and praying for Christians in the Middle East and for “our Muslim brothers”.
“Christians must respond to evil with good, taking the cross upon themselves as Jesus did,” said Francis, who followed the ceremony from under a canopy overlooking the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre.
The pope also referred to a visit to Lebanon last year by his predecessor Benedict XVI, who stunned the world by resigning last month at the age of 85.
“We saw the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and so many others,” the 76-year-old pope said.
‘Desire for simplicity’
Brazilian, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese and Nigerian faithful took turns carrying a wooden cross around the Colosseum, where it is commonly believed that Christians were martyred.
Prayers read out at the ceremony were written by a group of Lebanese young people.
The Vatican has voiced concern over the fate of Christian minorities in many parts of the Middle East and the rise of radical Islam, as well as calling for an end to conflict in the region.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pope had shortened some of the lengthy Easter ceremonies as part of his “desire for simplicity”.
The pope, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, was known in Argentina for his humble lifestyle, his outreach in poor neighbourhoods and his strong social advocacy during his homeland’s devastating economic crisis.
He began the most sacred season in the Christian calendar on Holy Thursday by washing the feet of 12 young prisoners in an unprecedented new take on an ancient pre-Easter ritual.
Popes performing the ceremony, which commemorates the gesture of humility believed to have been carried out by Jesus for his 12 disciples at their last meal, have usually washed the feet of priests.
Latin America’s first pontiff has set a markedly different tone from his predecessor, with a more open and informal style that is unusual in the Vatican halls of power.
Francis has already broken with several traditions, although he is yet to begin tackling the many problems assailing the Roman Catholic Church, including reform of the scandal-ridden Vatican bureaucracy and bank.