VATICAN CITY – As Mass began, a brisk breeze ruffled the pope’s gold-colored vestments and the crimson feathers atop the helmets of Swiss Guards as he strode up the square to take his place at a canopied altar on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
On Christianity’s most joyous day, Pope Benedict XVI offered holiday wishes in 62 languages Sunday, gave his blessing and reflected on the world’s troubles in his first Easter message as pontiff. St. Peter’s Square was ablaze with color and life, decorated with potted tulips, daffodils, wisteria and pansies, thronged by 100,000 faithful and tourists on a hazy spring day.
How different from last Easter, when Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, was so frail he was unable to speak, only raising his hand in blessing. Many in the crowd were moved to tears at the sight of their incapacitated leader.
John Paul died six days later, after missing all major Holy Week events.
This Easter fell on Benedict’s 79th birthday, and although he looked tired, he made sure to address the world’s pressing issues – a nuclear crisis over Iran, the Palestinians’ struggle for their own state, relentless violence in Iraq, suffering in Sudan’s Darfur region.
“Today, even in this modern age marked by anxiety and uncertainty, we relive the event of the Resurrection, which changed the face of our life and changed the history of humanity,” Benedict said in the traditional papal “Urbi et Orbi” message – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Easter is when Christians celebrate a core belief of their faith: that Jesus rose from the dead following his crucifixion, a source of optimism and consolation in their lives.
Benedict made note of developments which have raised fears that Iran might be working toward a nuclear arsenal.
“Concerning the international crises linked to nuclear power, may an honorable solution be found for all parties, through serious and honest negotiations,” he said, not naming any country.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said his country had successfully enriched uranium using 164 centrifuges, a significant step toward large-scale production of material that could be used to fuel nuclear reactors for generating electricity or to build atomic bombs.
Iran insists it only wants the peaceful use of nuclear power, but Western nations suspect Tehran wants to develop weapons and are demanding a halt to enrichment activities.
At the Vatican, Benedict was interrupted by applause when he said of Iraq: “May peace finally prevail over the tragic violence that continues mercilessly to claim victims.”
“I also pray sincerely that those caught up in the conflict in the Holy Land may find peace, and I invite all to patient and persevering dialogue, so as to remove both ancient and new obstacles,” he said.
There has been heavy pressure from abroad on the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which was elected in January, to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“May the international community, which reaffirms Israel’s just right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving toward the constitution of a state which is truly their own,” Benedict said.
And the pope lamented that the humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region was “no longer sustainable.”