VATICAN CITY — Celebrating Easter Sunday, Christianity’s most joyous and hopeful day, Pope Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine and Syria and for an end to the terrorist attacks in Nigeria that have targeted so many Christians.
More than 150,000 tourists — Romans and pilgrims, young and old — had turned out for the Mass he celebrated at an altar set up under a canopy on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
So many came that they overflowed the huge square, which was bedecked with row after row of potted daffodils, sprays of blue hyacinths and bunches of white roses. Waving flags from the pope’s native Argentina as well as Brazil, Mexico, Britain, Poland and many other countries, they filled the broad boulevard leading from the square to the Tiber River.
Francis noted that this year the Catholic church’s celebration of Easter coincided with that of Orthodox churches, which have many followers in Ukraine.
Invoking God, he said, “We ask you to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine, so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence.”
Tensions between pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine and those loyal to the interim government in Kiev have sparked bloodshed in recent days.
Francis also prayed that all sides in Syria will be moved to “boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue.”
Since March 2011, Syria has been wracked by a civil war that has cost 150,000 lives and forced millions to flee the country.
Francis makes a pilgrimage to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel next month. On Easter, he prayed that hopes sparked by the resumption of Mideast peace negotiations be sustained.
He also recalled those suffering in Africa from an epidemic of deadly Ebola and urged a halt to “brutal terrorist attacks” in parts of Nigeria.
But Francis’ Easter message also stressed that people pay attention to the needy close to home. Reflecting the priorities of his papacy, he said the “good news” of Easter’s joy and hope means “leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast.”
Cheering and applauding, the crowd tried to catch a glimpse of the pontiff as he circled around in his white popemobile at the end of the ceremony before he went to the central balcony over the basilica to deliver his commentary on the violence and poverty staining the Earth.
A rainstorm had lashed Rome on Saturday night, with thunder competing with the sound of hymns when Francis led a vigil service in the basilica. Dawn brought clear skies and warm temperatures for Easter, the culmination of Holy Week, the day which marks the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead after his crucifixion.
Reflecting the worldwide reach of the Catholic church, faithful read aloud prayers and passages from the Bible in Hindi, French, Chinese, German, Korean, Spanish, Italian and English.