Pope Francis on Saturday condemned the cruelty of the war in Ukraine during an Easter Vigil Mass which he attended but did not preside over, presumably because of leg pains that forced him to reduce its activities.
The mass was attended by Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, who was arrested by Russian forces last month and then released in a prisoner exchange.
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Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re replaced the pope as the main celebrant of the service, which involved a procession in near total darkness through the central nave of Christendom’s largest church.
The pope sat at the front of the basilica in a large white chair to the side, seemed alert and stood while reading the gospel.
He read his homily seated but in his normal voice.
The pope departed from his prepared text to acknowledge the presence of Fedorov, his family and three Ukrainian parliamentarians seated at the front.
He spoke of the “darkness of war, of cruelty”.
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“We are all praying for you and with you. We pray because there is so much suffering. We can only give you our company, our prayers and tell you ‘courage, we accompany you’,” François said.
He ended by saying “Christ is risen” in Ukrainian.
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Presiding over the mass, which was attended by 5,500 people, would have required long periods of standing during gospel singing and readings, genuflections at the altar and the baptism of seven adult converts.
The 85-year-old pope suffers from sciatica, which causes pain in one leg and results in a pronounced limp. Recently Francis also had a flare up of pain in his right knee.
The condition seems to come and go.
A schedule released Friday by the Vatican listed the pope as the chief celebrant for the Saturday evening service. The Vatican gave no official reason for the change.
On Friday afternoon, the pope was well enough to walk the entire aisle at the start and end of a Good Friday service in the basilica, but he did not prostrate himself on the floor as he normally does during this service.
He had to restrict some of his movements during a trip to Malta in early April and also had to ask a cardinal to replace him during a mass in December.
The Holy Week activities, which culminate on Sunday, mark the first time since 2019 that the public has been allowed to attend after two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
On Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar, he is to say Mass in St. Peter’s Square and then deliver his biannual “Urbi et Orbi” message and blessing (to the city and the world).
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Christina Fincher)