ROME —Standing in the midst of a giant cross outlined with small torches, Pope Francis said the cross is a reminder of how much evil people are capable of and how much love Jesus had for a sinful humanity.
"It was a heavy cross like the night for those who are abandoned, heavy like the death of a loved one and heavy" because it took on all the pain of evil, he said, presiding over the nighttime Way of the Cross April 18.
Standing atop a hillside overlooking Rome's Colosseum, the pope told the thousands of people who gathered with him in prayer that Jesus shows "that evil will not have the last word," and love, mercy and forgiveness will be victorious.
"From the cross we see the monstrosity of mankind when it lets itself be guided by evil. But we also see the immensity of the mercy of God, who doesn't treat us according to our sins, but according to his mercy."
Do not forget those who are sick and abandoned with their own cross, but pray "they find the strength of in the trials of the cross, the hope of God's resurrection and love," he said before imparting his blessing.
The solemn torch-lit service gave powerful voice to the many social and spiritual problems facing the world and to the redeeming power of Christ's sacrifice for humanity.
By passing a bare wooden cross from one group of people to the next in succession, those chosen to lead the Way of the Cross acted as visible representatives of the often-hidden injustices still wounding the world. Although most stations had multiple representatives, only one at each station physically carried the cross.
The smallest of three children held the cross as a reflection was read about the plight of sexually abused minors, and two inmates carried and accompanied the cross during a reflection on the anguish of imprisonment and torture.
As he did last year, Pope Francis remained on the hillside terrace in silent reflection and prayer as thousands of people, many holding candles, attended the ceremony, which was broadcast by more than 50 television networks around the world.
Each year, the pope chooses a different person or group of people to write the series of prayers and reflections that are read aloud for each of the 14 stations, which commemorate Christ's condemnation, his carrying the cross to Golgotha, his crucifixion and his burial.
This year the pope picked Italian Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano -- a former factory worker, longtime prison chaplain, champion of the unemployed and fiercely outspoken critic of the Italian mafia.
In the meditations, the archbishop, who belongs to Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata, looked at how the wounds and suffering of Christ are found in the wounds and suffering of one's neighbors, family, children and world.
For the second station -- Jesus takes up his cross -- the archbishop criticized the global economic crisis' grave consequences, like job insecurity, unemployment, suicide among owners of failing businesses and corruption.
A laborer and a business leader accompanied the cross, "which weighs upon the world of labor, the injustice shouldered by workers," said the reflection, which was followed by a call for people to respect political life and resolve problems together.
For the fourth station -- Jesus meets his mother -- two former addicts were present as people meditated on the tears mothers shed for their children sent off to war, dying of cancer from toxic wastelands or lost in "the abyss of drugs or alcohol, especially on Saturday nights."
For the fifth station -- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross -- two people without permanent homes carried and accompanied the cross as a reflection was read about "finding God in everyone" and sharing "our bread and labor" with others.
Two women participated in the eighth station -- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem -- as the meditation deplored domestic violence, "Let us weep for those men who vent on women all their pent-up violence" and to weep for women who are "enslaved by fear and exploitation."
But compassion is not enough, the archbishop wrote: "Jesus demands more." Follow his example of offering reassurance and support "so that our children may grow in dignity and hope."
The archbishop's meditations had equally strong words about the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up.
The child carried the cross for the 10th station -- Jesus is stripped of his garments -- as the reflection crafted an image of the utter humiliation of Jesus being stripped naked, "covered only by the blood which flowed from his gaping wounds."
"In Jesus, innocent, stripped and tortured, we see the outraged dignity of all the innocent, especially the little ones," the meditation said.
A family held the cross for a reflection on the need for kindness and shared suffering; two older people were represented during a reflection on how age and infirmity can become "a great school of wisdom, an encounter with God who is ever patient."
One of two Franciscan friars from the Holy Land carried the cross during a meditation on Christ emerging from the fear of death as a sign how forgiveness "renews, heals, transforms and comforts" and ends wars.
The Way of the Cross meditations are available in English and Spanish here.