Francis though did pronounce prayers throughout the service and offered a long appeal for peace at the end of the Mass. He said he was praying for the families of those killed in what he called an “inhuman” attack at a suburban Moscow concert hall and also asked for prayers for “the martyred Ukraine” and people of Gaza.

Vatican officials estimated some 60,000 people attended the Mass, held under a sunny, breezy spring sky. Francis spent several minutes greeting them from the Popemobile, making several loops around the piazza at the end of the service.

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Palm Sunday kicks off a busy week for Francis leading up to Easter Sunday when the faithful commemorate the resurrection of Christ. On Thursday, Francis is expected to travel to a Rome women’s prison for the traditional washing of the feet ritual. On Friday he is set to preside over the torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at Rome’s Colosseum re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion.

The following day marks the Easter Vigil, during which Francis presides over a solemn nighttime service in the basilica, followed by Easter Sunday Mass in St Peter’s Square and his midday blessing from the loggia above.

The Holy Week schedule is challenging for popes even under the best of circumstances. But that is especially true this year for Francis, who has been battling on and off all winter what he and the Vatican have described as a case of the flu, bronchitis or a cold. For the last several weeks he has occasionally asked an aide to read aloud his speeches and catechism lessons to spare him the effort.

On Sunday, there was no substitute called in, and the homily was skipped. Vatican officials said the prepared text was to be considered as never having existed. Usually, the pope does not deliver a homily at Easter, but he traditionally offers reflections on Palm Sunday.

Even when he is not ill, Francis often speaks in a whisper and seems to run out of breath easily. He had part of one lung removed when he was a young man because of a respiratory infection.

At this time last year, he was hospitalised for three days with an acute case of bronchitis, but then rallied to get through Holy Week. He has been hospitalised two other times during his pontificate for abdominal surgery, including one 10-day stay in 2021 to remove a part of his large intestine.

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At the end of the Mass, Francis offered a long prayer for peace for all those suffering from war, and for the Lord to comfort the victims of the “vile terrorist attack” in Moscow.

“May he convert the hearts of those who protect, organise and carry out these inhuman acts that offend God, who commanded us not to kill,” Francis said.

Without citing Moscow, Francis also asked the faithful not to forget Ukraine’s suffering. He noted many Ukrainians are now without electricity as a result of “intense attacks on infrastructure, which not only bring death and suffering, but also the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe of even bigger dimensions”.

“Please don’t forget the martyred Ukraine,” he said. “And let us also think of Gaza, which is suffering so much, and so many other places of war.”

Israeli security forces stand guard as Christians walk in the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem, Israel on Sunday. Photo: AP

Meanwhile in Israel, thousands of Christian faithful attended Palm Sunday celebrations at Jerusalem’s sacred Mount of Olives as conflict surges across the region.

Pilgrims waved branches and fronds in the air, items that were placed before Jesus’ feet as he was greeted by cheering crowds during his entrance into Jerusalem, according to the Bible. Earlier on Sunday, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre – revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion – also held a service.

The Israel-Gaza conflict appeared to have had little effect on the procession, which grew to a similar size as last year.

“Although there is war, in my impression I don’t feel any kind of tension,” said David Manini, a pilgrim from Italy.

The celebration marks the beginning of the most sombre week in the Christian calendar, which marks Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Roman Catholic clergymen carry palm fronds during the Palm Sunday procession at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, in Jerusalem on Sunday. Photo: AP
“I’m here because I love Jesus Christ,” said Jennifer Weedon, who travelled from the United States for the occasion.

Since the war erupted, Israel has seen a huge downturn in tourism. The war began on October 7, when Hamas militants from Gaza invaded southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage. Israel has responded with an air and ground war that has left more than 32,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

One of the placards held by a pilgrim read: “Save us lord. The Church of Saint Porphyrius and Holy Family Church, Gaza.”

In late October, Palestinian health officials said an Israeli strike hit St Porphyrius, a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza where displaced Palestinians were sheltering, killing 18 people.


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