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By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - The plight of immigrants, the poor, the sick, the elderly, unemployed and prisoners dominated Pope Francis' Good Friday service at Rome's Colosseum as he led Catholics around the world in commemorating the day Jesus died.
The pope, in the run-up to the second Easter of his pontificate, presided at the traditional "Via Crucis" (Way of the Cross) service around the ancient Roman ruin.
Sitting on a chair on the Palatine Hill just opposite the Colosseum and often kneeling to pray, he listened intently as meditations inspired by the 14 "stations of the cross" were read to the crowd of thousands holding candles.
Pairs of immigrants, prisoners, homeless, elderly, women, disabled, former drug addicts and others alternated carrying a large cross between each of the stations which describe the main events in the last hours of Jesus' life.
This year's meditations were written by Italian Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini, who has been in the front line in the fight against organised crime in southern Italy and one of the country's most socially progressive Churchmen.
One spoke of "all those wrongs which created the economic crisis and its grave social consequences: job insecurity, unemployment, dismissals, an economy that rules rather than serves, financial speculation, suicide among business owners, corruption and usury, the loss of local industry."
Others spoke of the plight of battered women, abused children, home-bound and lonely elderly, prisoners who endure torture, victims of organised crime and loansharks.
BED OF PAIN
"Today, many of our brothers and sisters, like Jesus, are nailed to a bed of pain, at hospital, in homes for the elderly, in our families. It is a time of hardship, with bitter days of solitude and even despair," another meditation read.
The participants at the event were urged to listen to "the cry of those persecuted, the dying, the terminally ill..."
In brief words at the end of the service, Francis urged the crowd to "remember all the abandoned people" and spoke of the "monstrosity of man" when he lets himself be guided by evil.
It was Francis's second Good Friday event. Hours earlier, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics attended a service in St. Peter's Basilica where the Vatican's official preacher said huge salaries and the world financial crisis were modern evils caused by the "cursed hunger for gold".
That long service was one of the few times during the year that the pope listens while someone else preaches.
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, whose title is "preacher of pontifical household," weaved his sermon around the character of Judas Iscariot, who the Bible says betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
"Behind every evil in our society is money, or at least in part," Cantalamessa said at the solemn service that included chanting by priests recounting the last hours of Jesus' life.
"The financial crisis that the world has gone through and that this country (Italy) is still going through - is it not in large part due to the cursed hunger for gold?" he said.
"Is it not also a scandal that some people earn salaries and collect pensions that are sometimes 100 times higher than those of the people who work for them and that they raise their voices to object when a proposal is put forward to reduce their salary for the sake of greater social justice?" he said.
Francis, who has made caring for the poor a central theme of his pontificate, said in December that huge salaries and bonuses were symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality.
On Saturday, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholic celebrates an Easter Eve service in St. Peter's Basilica and on Sunday he delivers his twice yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message.
On Sunday, April 27, Francis will canonise Pope John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005, and Pope John XXIII, who was pontiff from 1958 to 1963 and called the Second Vatican Council, a landmark meeting that modernised the Church.
Hundreds of thousands of people are due to come to Rome for the canonisations, the first time two popes are be made saints at the same time and the first canonisation of a pope since 1954.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)