Pope Francis, in his Easter message, calls for a ceasefire in Gaza

Amid renewed concerns for his health, Pope Francis presided over Easter Sunday mass and, in a hoarse but strong voice, delivered an important annual message that touched on conflicts around the world, with explicit calls for peace in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine.

The apparition came after the pope decided to scale back his participation in two major Holy Week events, apparently at the last minute.

Those decisions appeared to represent a new phase in a pontificate that has lasted more than 11 years during which Francis has made acceptance of the limitations that challenge and shape humanity a constant theme. Now he seems to have entered a period in which he himself is downsizing to observe and highlight the limits imposed by his health and to conserve his strength for the most critical moments.

After Mass on Sunday, Francis took a long ride in his popemobile around St. Peter’s Square before climbing onto a balcony overlooking it to deliver his traditional Easter message.

“Let us not let the strong winds of war blow across Europe and the Mediterranean,” he told the tens of thousands of faithful, dignitaries, Swiss Guards and clergy who filled the square.

Referring to the stone that had blocked the tomb of Jesus before his resurrection, celebrated at Easter, Francis said that “even today large stones, heavy stones, block the hopes of humanity”.

“The stone of war, the stone of humanitarian crises, the stone of human rights violations, the stone of human trafficking and other stones too,” he said.

The speech was a summary of Francis’ priorities, including the need to alleviate the suffering of people affected by war, natural disasters and famine in parts of the world he has visited. He addressed the plight of migrants, prayed for “consolation and hope” for the poor and spoke out against human trafficking and arms trafficking.

But his attention, Francis said, is directed in particular to the conflicts that afflict the world.

“My thoughts go above all to the victims of the many conflicts in the world, starting with those in Israel and Palestine, and in Ukraine,” he said, calling for the exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine.

“I once again appeal to ensure access to humanitarian aid in Gaza, and I once again ask for the prompt release of the hostages seized on October 7 and an immediate ceasefire in the Strip,” he added.

Holy Week is one of the busiest and most significant in the Christian calendar, and Francis has been dogged all winter by what the Vatican has called flu, bronchitis and cold-like symptoms. His doctor told Italian media on Saturday that Francis was in good shape for his age, but that flu season was difficult for him, as it has been for many older people, in part because he had had one removed as a young man. part of lung.

In recent years, Francis’ health has worsened. A significant portion of his large intestine was removed in 2021 and he spent time in hospital last year to remove potentially dangerous intestinal scar tissue from previous emergencies. Bad knee ligaments have often confined him to a wheelchair and required him to use a cane when standing.

These ailments came to the fore last week when Francis skipped the homily, a central sermon in the Mass service, on Palm Sunday, and the traditional Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum – an event he has missed the year last because he was recovering from bronchitis.

But this year a chair for him had been placed on a platform outside the Colosseum, suggesting the decision not to attend was a last-minute one. The Vatican said Francis made the decision “to preserve his health” in preparation for the events on Saturday and Sunday.

Francis presided over the ritual of washing the feet of the faithful on Holy Thursday in a women’s prison in Rome. He seemed determined and strong as he spoke to the inmates and gave a chocolate Easter egg to one of their children. Then on Saturday evening he presided over a long and solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Sunday, Francis waved and appeared in good spirits as people shouted, “Long live the pope,” during his tour of St. Peter’s Square. Then he reemerged on the balcony of the Basilica, adorned with flowers, where he spoke of the toll that conflict inflicts on civilians.

In what was a survey of the world’s often forgotten conflicts, the pope spoke of the ongoing suffering in Syria due to “a long and devastating war.” He expressed concern for the Lebanese affected by hostilities on the border with Israel. I prayed for an end to the “violence, devastation and bloodshed” in Haiti, for an easing of the humanitarian crisis facing the persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar, and for an end to the suffering in Sudan and the Sahel region of Africa.

And in Gaza, he said, the eyes of suffering children asked: “Why? Why all this death?”