Pope Benedict XVI led the world's Catholics in Good Friday ceremonies clouded by growing Vatican concern over the fate of Christians in the Middle East and perceived threats to its teachings.
The German pope, who turns 85 on April 16, presided over a spectacular sung ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica commemorating the last hours of Jesus Christ's life on a day that also marks the start of Jewish Passover celebrations.
The pontiff appeared frail and tired after his trip to Mexico and Cuba last month. He has nevertheless been acting with his characteristic spiritual vigour, issuing a stinging rebuke to rebellious priests on Thursday.
The pope's personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in his Good Friday prayers also made an apparent reference to the wave of clerical child abuse scandals that have shaken the Catholic Church in recent years.
Cantalamessa referred to the "sufferings of innocent children" and said that "many atrocious crimes have recently remained unsolved," urging abusers to "confess their crimes" and "not to take their secrets to the tomb."
Friday's Vatican prayers were followed by the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) ceremony -- a re-enactment of Christ's crucifixion -- held by the Colosseum, where thousands of Christians were martyred in Roman times.
At the Via Crucis, the pope voiced his concern about the the fate of traditional family values in front of thousands of pilgrims, warning the the economic crisis in particular was adding a heavy burden to many families.
"The experience of suffering marks humanity. It also marks the family. How often is the path testing and difficult! Misunderstandings, divisions, concern about the future of children, illness, difficulties of all sorts," he said.
The commemorations were mirrored around the world -- from the sight of Catholic fanatics in the Philippines having themselves nailed to crosses in a bloody display of religious frenzy to the crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem.
In Cuba, state-run television broadcast a Good Friday ceremony held in Havana cathedral for the first time in more than 50 years following an explicit request from the pope during his visit to the Communist island.
In Jerusalem's Old City, processions commemorated Christ's crucifixion.
Pilgrims -- some of them carrying crosses -- walked from the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation along the path where Jesus is believed to have walked, now known as the "Via Dolorosa" or the "Way of Suffering."
Easter ceremonies traditionally stress the suffering of the Catholic Church and the world, an emphasis that is being particularly keenly felt this year with multiple conflicts around the world and tensions within the Church.
The pope on Thursday issued a rare rebuke, condemning those who questioned the Church's teachings on clerical celibacy and the ordination of women.
The Catholic Church was "in an often dramatic situation", he said.
"Recently, a group of priests in a European country published an appeal for disobedience, giving concrete examples of how to be disobedient," he added, referring to a call made by a group of Austrian priests last year.
This year's prayers for the Stations of the Cross also emphasises the sense of crisis for the Church on traditional family values -- a subject close to the pope's heart as shown in frequent denunciations of gay marriage and divorce.
"There have been so many blows for our families! So many separations, betrayals! And then divorces, abortions, abandonments!" reads one of the prayers, published by the Vatican's official daily, L'Osservatore Romano.
The Holy Week celebrations take place amid concerns over the fate of Christians in the Middle East in the face of rising Islamism and violent conflict, especially in Syria which has a large Christian minority.
Donations from a Vatican mass on Thursday went to Syrian war victims and the pope has made a personal donation of $100,000 (77,000 euros) to the same cause.
Senior Church figures have voiced growing concern about Syria in recent days and have called for a rapid enactment of a UN plan to end the fighting.
"In some areas, Syrians are really living through calvaries," he told Vatican radio, referring to the crucifixion of Christ. "For security reasons, Easter ceremonies have been limited as much as possible," he added.
The religious news agency I.Media said the Vatican was preparing to announce in the coming days that the pope will travel to Lebanon in September, where he is expected to make a plea for peace and religious tolerance.
Source: AFP Global Edition