ROME - Pope Benedict reflected on the tragedies and disasters that test faith during a Good Friday procession in Rome, just hours after Italians buried victims of the country's devastating earthquake.
The pope, who plans a visit soon to the Abruzzo region where at least 289 people were killed in Monday's quake, presided over the traditional Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome's Colosseum, commemorating Christ's crucifixion and death.
Attended by tens of thousands of people, the solemn, night-time ceremony is one of the main services before Easter, the climax of the Christian year.
In this year's ceremony, the pope listened to meditations that began by asking the faithful not to lose hope in trying times. They were written by Indian Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil.
When misfortune hits us close to home, we grow disheartened. When we fall direct victims of a disaster, our self-confidence is totally shaken and our faith is put to the test. But all is not lost yet, Menamparampil wrote.
Although composed before the quake, the mediations took on special significance for a country grappling with its most deadly earthquake in three decades.
Tragedies make us ponder. A tsunami tells us that life is serious. Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain pilgrim places, Menamparampil wrote in one of the meditations.
When death strikes near, another world draws close. We then shed our illusions and have a grasp of the deeper reality.
Flags in Italy flew at half-mast on a national day of mourning on Friday, shops closed their shutters and airports halted take-offs, observing a minute's silence.
Pope Benedict granted a special dispensation to allow a funeral for quake victims to be held earlier in the day since mass is not usually celebrated on Good Friday.
The meditations lamented all forms of violence, corruption, oppression and what Menamparampil said was an erosion of the public expression of religious life.
Menamparampil, archbishop of Guwahati in northeast India, wrote: Jesus continues to suffer when believers are persecuted.
The German-born pope is leading the 1.1 billion-member Roman Catholic Church toward the fourth Easter of his pontificate.
On Saturday, Benedict will say an Easter Eve mass and on Sunday will deliver an Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) blessing and message.