Pope John Paul II, still limping after hip surgery, asked for help carrying the cross in the Good Friday procession. A Protestant nun, a mother of three and a teen-age girl were among those called.
It was the first time the pope didn’t carry the wooden cross himself over the entire half-mile circuit around the Colosseum. And it was the first time women were brought into the procession.
The pope, who has relied on a cane since last year’s hip replacement surgery, carried the light wooden cross on only three of the 14 stations of the cross, which recall Christ’s suffering before his crucifixion.
The pope began the ceremony by remembering the victims of recent civil wars and those who perished in concentration camps and atomic blasts during World War II.
The pope, wearing a red cape over white vestments, limped heavily as he carried the 5-foot cross for the first two stations around the Colosseum. After handing it to Sister Maatje, a Swiss Lutheran nun, he used a cane and was helped down stairs during the hour-long procession.
The pope again held the cross for the final station. “The Colosseum stands here as testimony to the martyrs of faith,” he said after the procession.
Tens of thousands of worshipers shielded prayer books and burning candles from the steady rain.
Women have never before taken a direct role in the procession, although nuns have previously written the text read at each of the 14 stations.
A Russian Orthodox priest from Moscow also was one of the cross bearers as part of Vatican efforts to involve other denominations on Christianity’s most solemn day.