, VATICAN CITY, Mar 31 – Pope Francis prepared to lead his first Easter Sunday celebrations with tens of thousands of people expected in St Peter’s Square for a mass marking the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
The ceremony will be followed by a special “Urbi et Orbi” blessing for Rome and the world that the pope will deliver from the same balcony where he made his first public appearance after his election this month.
At an Easter Vigil in St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, the first pontiff from outside Europe in nearly 1,300 years of Church history reached out to non-believers and lapsed Catholics, urging them to “step forward” towards God.
“He will receive you with open arms,” said the 76-year-old Argentine pope, formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has called for the Roman Catholic Church to be closer to ordinary people and the needy.
“Let us not close our hearts,” he appealed to the congregation in a mass in which he also baptised four converts.
He added: “Let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change.”
Easter Sunday celebrates the Christian belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection and is marked around the world, often with a variety of not strictly religious local traditions like painted eggs or Easter Bunnies.
US President Barack Obama on Saturday offered Easter and Jewish Passover greetings to millions of Americans, urging them to use this time to reflect on the nation’s common values.
Obama, a practising Christian, said in his weekly radio and Internet address that these religious celebrations were a chance “to rededicate ourselves to interests larger than our own”.
Easter at the Vatican is preceded by a series of ceremonies during Holy Week, which evokes the last days of Christ’s life.
On Holy Thursday, Francis celebrated an unprecedented mass in a youth prison in Rome in which he washed the feet of 12 inmates including two girls and two Muslims — a gesture of humility towards the 12 apostles attributed to Jesus.
Previous popes had only ever performed the ritual with priests or Catholic laymen.
On Good Friday, Francis presided over a torch-lit ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome, where Christians are believed to have been martyred. There, he prayed for peace in the Middle East and urged dialogue with “our Muslim brothers”.
The new pope has said he wants a “poor Church for poor people” and has adopted a less formal style than that of his predecessor Benedict XVI, already breaking with several Vatican traditions in his first few weeks in office.
Bergoglio, a moderate conservative on Catholic doctrine, was known in Argentina for his humble lifestyle, his outreach in poor neighbourhoods and his strong social advocacy during his homeland’s devastating economic crisis.
Vatican experts say he is yet to begin tackling key problems for the Church, however, including reform of the scandal-ridden Vatican bureaucracy.
Analysts will keep a particularly close eye on his appointments to top Vatican positions after Easter amid calls for a radical overhaul.
The status of the powerful Vatican bank, the Institute for the Works of Religion, which is under investigation in Italy for money laundering but has made efforts in recent years to reform itself, is also a pressing issue.
Another test will be how Francis handles the scandal of thousands of cases of child abuse by priests going back decades — many of which were hushed up.
His predecessor Benedict XVI’s troubled eight-year regin was often overshadowed by the scandals, including an embarrassing leak of hundreds of confidential Vatican papers last week that revealed cloak-and-dagger intrigue.
Benedict stunned the world by announcing his resignation last month — the first pope to do so in more than 700 years. The 85-year-old admitted he no longer had the physical or mental strength to carry out his papal duties.