VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis delivered a plea for peace in his first Easter Sunday message to the world, decrying seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula after celebrating Mass along with more than 250,000 people in flower-bedecked St. Peter’s Square.
Francis shared in his flock’s exuberance as they celebrated Christianity’s core belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead following crucifixion. After Mass, he stepped aboard an open-topped white popemobile for a cheerful spin through the joyous crowd, kissing babies and patting children on the head.
One admirer of both the pope and of the pope’s favourite soccer team, Argentina’s Saints of San Lorenzo, insisted that Francis take a team jersey he was waving at the pontiff. A delighted Francis obliged, briefly holding up the shirt, and the crowd roared in approval.
Francis has repeatedly put concern for the poor and suffering at the centre of his messages, and he pursued his promotion of the causes of peace and social justice in the Easter speech delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the same place from where he was introduced to the world as the first Latin American pope on March 13, shortly after his election.
He said he was joyfully aiming his Easter greetings, at “every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons.” Francis prayed that Jesus would inspire people to “change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”
In his softly and slowly pronounced speech, Francis defined Easter as an “exodus, the passage of human beings from slavery to sin and evil to the freedom of love and goodness.”
As popes before him have, he urged Israelis and Palestinians, who “struggle to find the road of agreement” to find the courage to resume peace talks and end a conflict that “has lasted all too long.” And, in reflecting on the two-year-old Syrian crisis, Francis asked, “How much suffering must there still be before a political solution” can be found?
The pope also expressed desire for a “spirit of reconciliation” on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea says it has entered “a state of war” with South Korea. He also decried violence in Africa, where he singled out for condemnation terrorists’ hostage-taking, as well as strife in Mali and warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Central African Republican, which has driven people from their homes.
The first pontiff to come from the Jesuits, an order with special concern for the poor, and the first pope to name himself after St. Francis, a medieval figure who renounced wealth to preach to the down-and-out, Francis lamented that the world is “still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threats human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this 21st century.”
Earlier, wearing cream-colored vestments, Francis celebrated Mass on the esplanade in front of the basilica at an altar set up under a white canopy. He frequently bowed his head as if in silent reflection.
The sun competed with clouds in the sky Sunday, but the square was a riot of floral colour in Rome, where chilly winter has postponed the blossoming of many flowers. Wind sent fluttering yellow forsythia and white lilies shone, along with bursts of lavender and pink, from potted azalea, rhododendron, wisteria and other plants. Francis thanked florists from the Netherlands for donating the flowers.
He also advised people to let love transform their lives, or as he put it, “let those desert places in our hearts bloom.”
The Vatican had prepared a list of brief, Easter greetings in 65 languages, but Francis didn’t read them. The Vatican didn’t say why, but has said that the new pope, at least for now, is growing comfortable in his new role using Italian, the everyday language of the Holy See.
Francis also has stressed his role as a pastor to his flock, and, as bishop of Rome, Italian would be his language.
In another departure from Easter tradition, Francis won’t be heading for a few days of post-holiday relaxation at the Vatican’s summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills southeast of Rome. That retreat place is already occupied by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who took up residence there in the last hours of his papacy on Feb. 28. Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign, and eventually is to move back to the Vatican, after a convent there is readied for him.
Francis so far has declined to move into Benedict’s former apartment in the Apostlolic Palace, into the rooms whose studio overlooks St. Peter’s Square. He is still in the Vatican hotel where he and fellow voting cardinals checked in on March 12, the day before they chose him in a secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel to lead the Roman Catholic church.
While Francis has just begun to make his mark on the church, he quickly made plain he has little desire to embrace much of the pomp customarily associated with the office. When he appeared on the central balcony of the basilica both times, he chose to wear the simple white cassock of pontiffs, declining ornate outfits and only accepting a red stole to be draped on him when it was time to give the crowd his solemn blessing.
© The Associated Press, 2013