VATICAN CITY — Speaking to the largest crowd at St. Peter's Square this year, Pope Francis used his Easter blessing Sunday to call for world peace and defend the less fortunate.
An estimated 150,000 gathered in crisp, cool weather to hear the pope's "Urbi et Orbi," Latin for "to the city and the world," address that, in many ways, serves as a precursor to next week's canonizations of former popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
With Easter being one of the most important dates on the Catholic calendar, Francis used the holy day to call for an end to the use of "deadly force" against defenseless populations in Syria, for the easing of tensions in Ukraine, and for an end to the "brutal terrorists attacks" in Nigeria, as well as violence in Iraq, South Sudan and throughout the world.
Speaking from the "loggia" — the same central balcony where he first appeared as pope 13 months ago — Francis called for the "resumption of negotiations between Israel and Palestine," a symbolic note coming just five weeks before his first trip as pontiff to the Holy Land.
The pontiff also called for the world to "overcome the scourge of hunger," especially for children and the elderly, which he said was aggravated by conflicts, forced migration and wastefulness. He singled out the need for care of "our brothers and sisters struck by the Ebola epidemic" in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and for "those suffering from so many other diseases also spread through neglect and dire poverty."
Peace was the main topic in his address on Easter — a day recognized by Catholics as the anniversary of when Jesus rose from the dead.
"We pray in a particular way for Syria, that all those suffering the effects of the conflict can receive needed humanitarian aid," he said.
Noting Rome's fraternity with Christian Orthodox faiths, Francis also spoke on Ukraine, calling for God to "enlighten and inspire initiatives that promote peace" in that country.
Those gathered in St. Peter's said the call for peace was especially poignant given the amount of violence in the world.
"The champions of peace cannot have a greater ally than pope Francis," said Marie Madeline Suarez, a 25-year-old Guatemalan nun living in Rome, who wept as the pope spoke. "There were great and inspired leaders in history and it is moving to see one living and breathing here and giving us his blessing."
Alexander Peterson, a 55-year-old taxi company manager and a veteran of the first Gulf War who came to Rome from Pittsburgh with his family, agreed.
"To hear this pope, you get the feeling he understands the suffering of those in zones of conflict," Peterson said. "It is clear he is using his influence to profile important causes he believes in and it is inspiring to see."
The topic of peace will likely rise again in a week when the Vatican pays homage to John XXXIII, who intervened to help bring regional conflicts to an end as pope, and to John Paul II, who played a key role in helping to end the Cold War. Both men will be declared saints April 27. In the case of John Paul II, it will be by far the fastest canonization in the modern era.
That celebration could draw more than one million people to St. Peter's, possibly making it the largest gathering in the city since John Paul's funeral in 2005.
For Easter, Francis' comments were serious but greeted with enthusiasm that was only rivaled when the ceremony drew to a close with the pope's traditional jovial informality.
"That's it: Happy Easter!" Francis said at the end of the ceremony. "Go and have a good lunch!"