Pope Rallies from Health Issues to Lead Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square

Vatican Pope Easter

ROME – Despite dealing with respiratory problems all winter, Pope Francis led around 60,000 people in Easter celebrations Sunday at St. Peter’s Square and strongly appealed for a ceasefire in Gaza and a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

Francis presided over the Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square decorated with flowers and then delivered a heartfelt prayer for peace as part of his annual review of global crises. In between, he made several loops around the square in his popemobile to greet well-wishers.

“Peace is never achieved with weapons, but with hands extended in welcome and open hearts,” Francis said from the balcony overlooking the square, receiving applause from the windy crowd below.

Francis appeared in good condition, despite having led the two-and-a-half-hour nighttime Easter Vigil service just hours before. The pontiff, who had part of one lung removed when young, has dealt with respiratory problems all winter and his full participation in Easter ceremonies was not entirely certain, especially after skipping the traditional Good Friday procession.

The Vatican said around 60,000 people attended the Mass, with more filling the Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the square. At the start of the service, a strong gust of wind blew over a large religious icon on the altar just feet from the pope; ushers quickly righted it.

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

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

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

He appealed for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on October 7, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and humanitarian access to reach Palestinians.

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

For the past few weeks, Francis generally avoided long speeches to prevent strain on his breathing. He dropped his Palm Sunday homily last week and decided last minute to skip 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.

Francis wasn’t the only leader whose mere presence at Easter offered a reassuring sign of stability and normalcy.

In Britain, King Charles III joined the queen and other royal family members for an Easter service at Windsor Castle since being diagnosed with cancer last month.

The monarch offered a cheery wave to spectators as he walked into St. George’s Chapel, and then spent time shaking hands and greeting well-wishers after the service. “You’re very brave to stand out here in the cold,” Charles told them.

But things were hardly normal in Jerusalem, where Easter Mass came and went at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Only a few dozen faithful attended the service as the Israel-Hamas war rages on in Gaza.

The medieval church in the Old City is the holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

In past years, the church has been packed with worshippers and tourists. But the bloody conflict in Gaza, now into its sixth month, has seen a huge downturn in tourism and pilgrimages across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The streets of the old city were also absent of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the city for Easter. Since the conflict erupted, Palestinian worshippers from the Israeli-occupied territory have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

In Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, where 10 years ago the Islamic State group killed and displaced thousands of minority Iraqis, hundreds of people celebrated Easter in a region that has had a Christian presence since around the time of Jesus. Iraq’s Christian community, which was once some 1.5 million, now numbers at most a few hundred thousand.

“We will definitely stick to this land and remain here until the last, and hope for a change,” said Nassar Mubarak, who attended Easter Mass at the Immaculate Conception church in Qaraqosh.