Pope rallies after health concerns to preside over Easter Sunday Mass

Pope Francis made a strong appeal for a ceasefire in Gaza and a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine

Pope Francis led some 30,000 people in Easter celebrations on Sunday, having suffered a winter-long bout of respiratory problems.

He made a strong appeal for a ceasefire 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.

In between, the 87-year-old 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 from the loggia overlooking the square, receiving applause from the wind-swept crowd below.

Francis appeared in good health, despite having celebrated the two and a half 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.

Pope Francis smiles from the central balcony of the St. Peter's Basilica. Credit: AP

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, and it was quickly moved by ushers.

Easter Mass is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar, celebrating what the faithful believe was Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion.

Credit: AP

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 October 7, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and for humanitarian access to reach Palestinians.

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“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 cancelled 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.”

Celebrations were far from normal in Jerusalem, where Easter Mass came and went at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Easter Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

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 years past, the church has been packed with worshippers and tourists.

But the 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 Holy City for Easter.

Since the most recent conflict started, Palestinian worshippers from the Israeli-occupied territory have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

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