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Tens of thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square for a four-hour Syria peace vigil late Saturday, answering Pope Francis’ call for a grassroots cry for peace that was echoed by Christians and non-Christians alike in Syria and in vigils around the world.
The Vatican estimated about 100,000 took part in the Rome event, making it one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed U.S.-led military action against the Syrian regime following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Francis spent most of the vigil in silent prayer, but during his speech he issued a heartfelt plea for peace, denouncing those who are “captivated by the idols of dominion and power” and destroy God’s creation through war.
“This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: Violence and war are never the way to peace!” he said.
“May the noise of weapons cease!” he said. “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.”
Published March 31, 2013
March 31, 2013: Pope Francis, holding the pastoral staff, celebrates the Easter mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (AP)
Pope Francis used his first Easter Sunday Mass as pontiff to make a world peace plea, saying that conflicts have lasted too long in Syria, in addition to urging unity in Africa and the Korean peninsula.
Before a crowd of 250,000 in St. Peter’s Square, he also denounced warfare and terrorism across the world, and decried a greedy affluent world looking for `’easy gain.”
“And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace,” Pope Francis said. “Peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long. Peace in Iraq, that every act of violence may end, and above all for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort. How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?”
Pope Francis called stability in Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where he said many have been forced to leave their homes amid violence.
After the Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Francis shared in the crowd’s exuberance as they celebrated the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead following crucifixion. Aboard an open-topped popemobile, Francis took a lighthearted spin through the joyous gatherers, kissing babies and patting children on the head.
One admirer of the pope and the pope’s favorite soccer team, Argentina’s Saints of San Lorenzo, insisted that Francis take a team jersey he was waving at the pontiff. A delighted Francis obliged, briefly holding up the shirt.
Since the start of his papacy on March 13, Francis has repeatedly put his concern for the poor and suffering at the center of his messages, and the Easter speech he delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica reflected his push for peace and social justice.
He said he wished a “Happy Easter” greeting could reach “every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons.”
Francis, the first pope from Latin America and a member of the Jesuit order, lamented that the world is “still divided by greed looking for easy gain.” He wished for an end to violence linked to drug trafficking and the dangers stemming from the reckless exploitation of natural resources.
Earlier, wearing cream-colored vestments, Francis celebrated Mass on the esplanade in front of the basilica at an altar set up under a white canopy.
The sun competed with clouds in the sky Sunday, but the square was a riot of floral color in Rome, where chilly winter has postponed the blossoming of many flowers. Yellow forsythia and white lilies shone, along with bursts of lavender and pink, from potted azalea, rhododendron, wisteria and other plants.
Francis thanked florists from the Netherlands for donating the flowers. He also advised people to let love transform their lives, or as he put it, “let those desert places in our hearts bloom.”
The Vatican had prepared a list of brief, Easter greetings in 65 languages, but Francis didn’t read them. The Vatican didn’t say why not, but has said that the new pope, at least for now, feels at ease using Italian, the everyday language of the Holy See.
Francis also has stressed his role as a pastor to his flock, and, as Bishop of Rome, Italian would be his language.