The Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum is one of the most dramatic rituals of Holy Week, when Christians commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ.
The 2,000-year-old amphitheatre is used as a backdrop for the ceremony because of the belief that Christians were martyred there in Roman times, even though there is no evidence of this.
The 76-year-old Francis chose not to walk the procession itself, but was sitting in prayer overlooking the route and was to deliver some remarks at the end.
This year, the meditations read out at each of the stations of the cross were composed by young Lebanese faithful.
Many of the prayers referred to the plight of Christians in the Middle East and called for religious freedom and an end to the terrorism.
Italian families, Chinese trainee priests, Lebanese and Nigerian nuns and a delegation of young people from Brazil took it in turns to carry a large wooden cross during the procession.
The meditations read out during the ceremony were written by a group of Lebanese young people chosen by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, who in turn was asked to come up with the prayers this year by Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI.
“Come, Holy Spirit, to console and strengthen Christians, especially those from the Middle East so that, united in Christ, they may be witnesses of your universal love in an area torn apart by injustice and conflicts,” read one of the prayers.
Another referred to the conflicts “which in our days devastate various countries in the Middle East”.
“Let us pray that the displaced and the forced migrants may soon return to their homes and lands.”
The Vatican has been concerned over the fate of Christian minorities in many parts of the Middle East amid a rise in radical Islam, as well as calling for an end to conflict in the region.
The ceremonies come after a Mass in a youth prison on Thursday in which the Pope washed the feet of 12 inmates, including two Muslims, an unprecedented version of a traditional pre-Easter ritual.
“Whoever is the most high up must be at the service of others,” Francis said at the Mass in the Casal del Marmo youth prison.
The ceremony is usually held in a basilica in the city centre and commemorates the gesture of humility believed to have been performed by Jesus for his 12 disciples at their last meal.
Francis has already broken with several Vatican traditions, although he is yet to begin tackling the many problems assailing the Roman Catholic Church, including reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and bank.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Pope had shortened some of the lengthy Easter ceremonies as part of his “desire for simplicity”.