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Pope skips Good Friday event to preserve health ahead of Easter, Vatican says

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ROME (AP) — Pope Francis skipped the traditional Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum to protect his health, the Vatican said, making a last-minute decision that added to concerns about his frail condition during a particularly busy period.

Francis had been expected to preside over the Way of the Cross procession, which re-enacts Christ’s Passion and crucifixion, and composed the meditations that are read aloud at each station. But just as the event was about to begin, the Vatican announced that Francis was following the event from his home at the Vatican.

“To conserve his health in view of the vigil tomorrow and Mass on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis will follow the Via Crucis at the Colosseum this evening from the Casa Santa Marta,” a statement from the Vatican press office said.

While Francis had also skipped the event in 2023 because he was recovering from bronchitis and it was a particularly cold night, his decision to stay home this year suggested his plans had changed suddenly.

The 87-year-old Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling what he and the Vatican have described as a case of the flu, bronchitis or a cold all winter long. For the last several weeks he has occasionally asked an aide to read aloud his speeches, and heskipped his Palm Sunday homily altogether.

The decision to stay home appeared to be very last-minute: Francis’ chair was in place on the platform outside the Colosseum where he was to preside over the rite. His close aide, Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, was on hand and moved the television screen around on the platform so Francis would have a better view of what was going on inside the Colosseum itself.

But at 9:10 p.m., five minutes before the official start of the procession, the Vatican press office announced on Telegram that he wouldn’t attend. The chair was quickly taken away.

His absence was noted with concern but understanding among some of the estimated 25,000 pilgrims who packed the area for the torchlit procession.

“I think of course it causes concern for the people who make sure that he is doing well, but he must have his reasons for the decisions that he makes,” said Marlene Steuber, who was visiting from Costa Rica. “Still I think that people are involved and very blessed and happy to be here and experience these events here in Rome.”

Brian Hopp, a visitor from Chicago, noted that Francis has had his health challenges this year.

“I definitely don’t think it was a decision taken lightly. I think a lot was taken into it and I think he probably prioritized his health for Easter, which I think is a very responsible thing to do,” Hopp said. “I know he has been going through a lot this year so I don’t expect him to be able to make every event.”

The hasty announcement recalled Francis’ last-minute decision on Palm Sunday, when the Vatican issued the pope’s homily in advance to journalists, and his aide got up to give him his glasses to read it. But Francis made clear he wouldn’t read it, and the aide put the glasses back in his pocket. The Vatican later said the homily was replaced by a moment of silent prayer.

Francis had appeared in good form earlier in the day for a Good Friday liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica, though he remained mostly seated and it was not a particularly taxing event that required him to speak at length.

On Thursday, he left the Vatican to preside over the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual at a Rome women’s prison. While he performed the rite from his wheelchair, Francis appeared strong and engaged with the inmates, even giving a big chocolate Easter egg to one woman’s young son.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to preside over a lengthy evening Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s, one of the most solemn events in the liturgical calendar. He also is due to preside over Easter Sunday Mass in the piazza and deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) speech rounding up global crises and threats to humanity.

In addition to his respiratory problems, Francis had a chunk of his large intestine removed in 2021 and was hospitalized twice last year, including once to remove intestinal scar tissue from previous surgeries to address diverticulosis, or bulges in his intestinal wall. He has been using a wheelchair and cane for over a year because of bad knee ligaments.

In his recently published memoirs, “Life: My Story Through History,” Francis said he isn’t suffering from any health problems that would require him to resign and that he still has “ many projects to bring to fruition.”

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This story has been corrected to show that this was the second time Francis skipped the event, after staying home also in 2023.

By NICOLE WINFIELD, ANDREW MEDICHINI, SILVIA STELLACCI and ARITZ PARRA
Associated Press

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