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Pope leads Easter Vigil after health concerns

By AFP - Mar 31,2024 - Last updated at Mar 31,2024

Pope Francis presides the Easter vigil as part of the Holy Week celebrations, at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on Saturday (AFP photo)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis took part in the Easter Vigil service at the Vatican on Saturday, a day after the last-minute cancellation of his presence at a major Good Friday procession revived questions about his health.

The 87-year-old Pontiff arrived to preside over the Easter Vigil at Saint Peter's Basilica in front of thousands of pilgrims from around the world shortly before 7:30 pm (18:30 GMT).

A day after cancelling his appearance at the Stations of the Cross ("Via Crucis") ceremony, Pope Francis, clad in white, arrived in a wheelchair shortly before the two-hour service.

The Vatican had confirmed earlier in the day that he would attend.

After the rite of light in a basilica plunged into darkness to symbolise the passage from death to life of Christ, Francis was to deliver the homily and then baptise eight adults.

Sunday's Easter Mass and the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing that follows it will be broadcast live around the world.

In a brief statement Friday, the Vatican had said that "to preserve his health ahead of tomorrow's vigil and the Easter Sunday mass, Pope Francis will this evening follow the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum from the Santa Marta Residence", where he lives.

The last-minute decision — the Pope's chair was already in place for the procession — and the lack of detail in the statement added to doubts about his health and questions as to how long he can continue to lead the Catholic Church and its 1.3 billion followers.

"The Via Crucis of a fragile Pope" was the Saturday headline in Italian daily La Stampa, while Il Messaggero spoke of a "renunciation of Francis".

A Vatican source told AFP on Friday that there was "no particular concern" about his health, and that the decision to pull out had been "simply a measure of caution".

The Argentinian Jesuit had also cancelled his participation in the “Via Crucis” in 2023, but that followed a three-day hospital stay for bronchitis, and was announced well ahead of time. Weeks later, he underwent a hernia operation.

Holy Week is a pillar of the Catholic calendar, involving a series of ceremonies leading up to Easter Sunday itself.

Up until Friday, the pope had attended his various Holy Week engagements, but he has recently appeared tired and has sometimes delegated speaking roles to colleagues.

Francis, who never takes holidays, made his last trip in September, to the southern French city of Marseille. In December, he cancelled a much-anticipated attendance at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.

Francis has previously left the door open to stepping down if he can no longer do the job. That would follow the example of his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pope since the Middle Ages to voluntarily step aside.

But in a memoir published this month, Francis wrote that he did “not have any cause serious enough to make me think of resigning”.

Resignation is a “distant possibility” that would be justified only in the event of “a serious physical impediment”, he wrote.


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