VATICAN CITY | Pope Francis marked his first Easter Mass with ambitious calls for world peace, better protection of the environment and an end to greed, as he addressed the biggest crowd yet to see him.
Francis, who was elected pope March 13, has impressed many who view him as a humble, devout and spiritual figure who shrugs off much of the pomp that comes with being the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. On Sunday, he departed from the prepared schedule and descended from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to get closer to people in the crowd estimated at more than 250,000. Riding his open-air “pope-mobile,” he stopped several times to bless people and, at one point, accepted an Argentine soccer jersey from the outstretched hands of a fan. Francis is from Argentina.
The pope also dropped plans to offer Easter blessings in 65 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese. Pope John Paul II started the tradition of polyglot greetings on major holidays, and Vatican officials went as far as to distribute the list of languages Francis would speak. But in the end, he stuck with Italian, the language spoken by most of those in attendance. ”I would like [the message of Easter] to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is the greatest, in hospitals, in prisons,” he said. “Most of all, I would like it to enter every heart.” Francis called for peace around the world — mentioning the civil war in Syria, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, tension on the Korean Peninsula and turmoil throughout Africa.
“How much suffering must there still be before a political solution [in Syria],” he asked of the two-year uprising that has cost as many as 70,000 lives.He noted communist North Korea’s declaration of a “state of war” against democratic South Korea and expressed hopes for a “spirit of reconciliation.”
Francis also called for greater efforts to protect the environment, urging the world to be better “guardians” of the planet, and he denounced what he said was a search for “easy gain” in a greedy world.
“How many deserts — even today — do human beings need to cross?” he asked. “Above all, [we must cross] the desert within — when we have no love for God or neighbor.”
To keep the focus on Francis’ Easter message, Vatican officials used loudspeakers to ask those in attendance to refrain from clapping their hands or waving flags during the service. They also asked for silence so the faithful could concentrate on the pope’s message, as several cinema-sized screens around St. Peter’s Square and on the main avenue leading to the plaza broadcast his sermon.
The crowd on hand was large and enthusiastic under mostly clear skies that followed weeks of gray skies and drizzle in Rome.
“The pope’s message is a message of peace, and his humble and sincere lifestyle makes that more powerful,” said Sandra Genovese, a 59-year-old municipal worker based in Rome. “I only hope he is able to make a difference in the world because this is something we greatly need.”
Vatican experts said Sunday’s Easter celebration, coming just 18 days after Francis was selected as pope and only a month after the abdication of predecessor Benedict XVI would serve as the end of the new pontiff’s introduction to the world and the start of the process of confronting many of the church’s problems.
With relatively few high-profile events scheduled for the coming weeks, Francis is expected now to turn his attention to addressing prickly issues, including the church’s handling of scandals involving pedophile priests and allegations that gay clergymen inside the Vatican have been blackmailed.
The church is also facing investigations of money laundering involving the Vatican Bank, and pressing ahead on reforms to the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy that is seen as an obstacle to change.