Pope delivers stirring message to wartorn countries on Easter Sunday

Courtesy of Pope Francis's Twitter VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis asked the tens of thousands of faithful -- and hundreds of police and security personnel -- gathered for Easter in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him, after using strong language to call for peace in some of the most war-torn parts of the world.

The tightest security on record limited the crowd size in the square, which had large empty areas despite the first day of crisp spring weather after a grey, rainy week in Rome. The crowd on hand waved flags and chanted in support of the 81-year-old Argentine.

Francis, who two weeks ago celebrated his fifth anniversary as pontiff, used his homily to lament to death of 15 Palestinians in Gaza, where he said the violence is causing “wounds of conflict that do not spare the defenseless.” The pope also called for warring parties to allow humanitarian aid to enter Syria, and he called for an end to violence in the African nations of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“This Easter, may the light of the risen Christ illuminate the consciences of all political and military leaders, so a swift end can be brought to the carnage,” Francis said.

“It’s notable that the pope used such strong language when talking about violence in the world,” said Salvatore Cernuzio, an author and Vatican expert with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa. “His papacy has never shied away from taking strong political stances, and he continued that” on Sunday.

The pope recited the Biblical parallel of the grain of wheat that must die in order to bear fruit as an example of focusing on the long term: “It is the power of the grain of wheat, the power of that which humbles itself and gives of itself until the very end, and in that way renews the world.”

Rome was on high alert in the days leading up to Easter, with police stationed around the city for several days. Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti warned Thursday that some of the tens of thousands of ISIS fighter on the run after defeats in Syria and Iraq could end up in Italy.

“It is a national security priority,” Minniti said. A ministry spokesman said Friday that at least four suspected terror agents had been arrested in Italy in the week before Easter, though there is no proof any of them were targeting the Vatican City, which is surrounded on all side by the Italian capital of Rome. Italy remains the only large European country not to have suffered a terror attack since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Those gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Easter had to go through two security checks to enter the main square. Traffic was blocked off for several blocks in all directions, and armed security were visible on the surrounding streets and on nearby rooftops.

“For every security measure that is visible, you can be sure there are ten we do not know about,” said Massimo Blanco, a criminology and security expert at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “The security of the pope or of any place where large crowds are gathered is something Italy takes very seriously.”

After the Easter Mass, Francis gave his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) blessing from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, closing with a plea: “Please don’t forget to pray for me,” the pope said.

In the square, the faithful had mixed views after the pope waded into increasingly complicated geopolitical waters Sunday.

“The see the pope as a kind of moral compass for Christians, and I think it is his duty to cast a certain light on problems that religious people should be more aware of,” said Matthew R. Reynolds, 27, a philosophy and theology graduate student from Detroit studying in Rome.

Meaghan Ellis-Nowicki, 40, a Massachusetts high school administrator, agreed.

“If the pope says he is outraged, then maybe it should mean something to us,” said Ellis-Nowicki, who is on vacation in Rome with her parents.

But some Italians in the crowd were less convinced by the pope’s remarks about global events.

“I agree there is tragedy in the world, but I also think the pope should focus on being a spiritual leader and leave politics to others,” said 68-year-old Leo Rosiello, a church volunteer and retired municipal bus driver.

Anna Maria Alfonso, 49, a hospital worker, said she would have liked to see the pope address problems within the church as well as secular, global topics.

“We have a church splitting between conservative and progressive, we have problem of sex scandals,” Alfonso said. “Pope Francis is a holy man, and I think I agree with his vision of the world. But he probably focuses too much on things he cannot control directly and too little on areas where he can have an immediate impact.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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