Health concerns are growing for Pope Francis as he skips a key Good Friday event

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 raised concerns about his frail condition during a particularly busy period.

Francis was expected to preside over the Stations of the Cross procession, which reenacts Christ's passion and crucifixion, and compose the meditations that are read aloud at each stop. But just as the event was about to begin, the Vatican announced that Francis was watching the event from his home in the Vatican.

“To preserve his health in light of tomorrow’s vigil and Easter Mass, Pope Francis will follow the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum this evening from the House of Saint Martha,” a statement from the Vatican’s press office said.

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

The 87-year-old Pope Francis, who had part of one of his lungs removed when he was a young man, has been suffering from what he and the Vatican have described as a case of influenza, bronchitis or a common cold all winter long. Over the past several weeks, he has occasionally asked an aide to read his speeches aloud, and he has skipped a Palm Sunday sermon entirely.

The decision to stay home appeared to have come at the last minute: Francis' chair was in place on the dais outside the Colosseum where he was scheduled to preside over the ritual. His close aide, Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, was on hand and moved the television screen onto the podium so that Francis could better see what was happening inside the Colosseum itself.

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But at 9.10pm, five minutes before the official start of the procession, the Vatican press office announced via telegram that he would not be attending. The chair was quickly taken.

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His absence was noted with concern but understanding among some of the estimated 25,000 pilgrims who gathered in the area to participate in the torchlight procession.

“I think this of course concerns people who are making sure he's doing well, but he has to have his reasons behind the decisions he makes,” said Marilyn Steuber, who was visiting from Costa Rica. “I still think people are engaged, blessed and very happy to be here and experience these events here in Rome.”

Brian Hope, a visitor from Chicago, noted that Francis has faced health challenges this year.

“I certainly don't think it was a decision that was taken lightly. I think a lot was taken into consideration and I think he probably prioritized his health at Easter, which I think is a very responsible thing to do,” Hope said. “I know he's been through a lot of this.” “This year, I don't expect him to be able to participate in every event.”

The hasty announcement brought to mind a last-minute decision Francis made on Palm Sunday, when the Vatican pre-released the pope's sermon to reporters, and his aide rose to hand him his glasses to read. But Francis made it clear that he would not read it, and the assistant put the glasses back in his pocket. The Vatican later said the sermon had been replaced with a moment of silent prayer.

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Francis appeared in good condition earlier in the day to attend Good Friday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, although he remained mostly seated and it was not a particularly stressful event that would require him to speak at length.

He left the Vatican on Thursday to preside over the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday in a women's prison in Rome. As he performed the ritual from his wheelchair, Francis appeared strong and engaged with the inmates, even giving a large chocolate egg to one of the women's young son.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to preside over a long Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, one of the most solemn events on the liturgical calendar. He is also scheduled to preside over Easter Mass in the square and deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (For the City and the World) speech in which he addresses global crises and threats facing humanity.

In addition to his respiratory problems, Francis had part of his large intestine removed in 2021 and has been hospitalized twice in the past year, including once to remove intestinal scar tissue from previous surgeries to treat diverticula, or bulges in the intestinal wall. He has been using a wheelchair and cane for more than a year due to bad knee ligaments.

In his recently published memoir, “Life: My Story Through History,” Francis said that he does not suffer from any health problems that might require him to resign, and that he still has “many projects to achieve.”

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