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Pope overcomes health concerns to preside over a blustery Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square

‘Peace is never made with weapons, but with outstretched hands and open hearts,’ Francis said, to applause from the wind-swept crowd below

Pope Francis smiles from the central balcony of the St. Peter's Basilica prior to the 'Urbi et Orbi' (To the city and to the world) blessing, at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
Pope Francis smiles from the central balcony of the St. Peter's Basilica prior to the 'Urbi et Orbi' (To the city and to the world) blessing, at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024.Andrew Medichini (AP)

Rallying from a winter-long bout of respiratory problems, Pope Francis led some 30,000 people in Easter celebrations Sunday, making a strong appeal for a cease-fire in Gaza and a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

Francis presided over Easter Sunday Mass in a flower-decked St. Peter’s Square and then delivered a heartfelt prayer for peace in his annual roundup of global crises delivered from the loggia overlooking the piazza. In between, he made several loops around the piazza in his popemobile, greeting well-wishers.

“Peace is never made with weapons, but with outstretched hands and open hearts,” Francis said, to applause from the wind-swept crowd below.

Francis appeared in good form, despite having celebrated the 2.5-hour nighttime Easter Vigil just hours before. The pontiff, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter.

The Vatican said some 30,000 people attended the Mass, with more packing the Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the piazza. At the start of the service, a gust of wind knocked over a large religious icon on the altar just a few feet from the pope; ushers quickly righted it.

Easter Mass is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar, celebrating what the faithful believe was Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion. The Mass precedes the pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing, in which the pope traditionally offers a laundry list of the threats afflicting humanity.

This year, Francis said his thoughts went particularly to people in Ukraine and Gaza and all those facing war, particularly the children who he said had “forgotten how to smile.”

“In calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all!” he said.

He called for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on Oct. 7, an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for humanitarian access to reach Palestinians.

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” he said in a speech that also touched on the plight of Haitians, the Rohingya and victims of human trafficking.

For the past few weeks, Francis has generally avoided delivering long speeches to avoid the strain on his breathing. He ditched his Palm Sunday homily last week and decided at the last minute to stay home from the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum.

The Vatican said in a brief explanation that the decision was made to “conserve his health.”

The decision clearly paid off, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of the lengthy Saturday night Easter Vigil service, including administering the sacraments of baptism and First Communion to eight new Catholics, and preside over Easter Sunday Mass and deliver his speech.

After a busy Holy Week, Francis should have some time to recover as there are no major foreign trips scheduled for several months.

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