Pope Francis has called on Christians not to let fear and pessimism “imprison” them as he delivered his Easter message.
Speaking amid tight security at the Vatican, Pope Francis said: “Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts.”
The Pope’s message followed a condemnation on March 25 of the Brussels terror attacks.
Islamist violence is expected to be a prominent theme of his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” Easter message.
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Many pilgrims cancelled their planned trips to Rome in the wake of the violence in Brussels, but St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was packed when Pope Francis celebrated mass on March 26.
Pope Francis entered a darkened basilica with just a single candle guiding him. As he reached the altar, the basilica’s floodlights came on to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Delivering his homily, Pope Francis said: “Today is the celebration of our hope. It is so necessary today.”
The lengthy vigil service also included a papal baptism for 12 adults hailing from China, South Korea and other countries around the world.
On Easter Day, Francis will preside over Easter Mass and offer his annual Easter blessing.
On March 25, he denounced the “terrorist acts committed by followers of some religions which profane the name of God and which use the holy name to justify their unprecedented violence”.
Meanwhile, Vatican officials distributed sleeping bags to 100 homeless people.
The police presence in the streets around the Vatican has been stepped up this year, as more pilgrims than usual are expected after Pope Francis declared a jubilee year for the Catholic Church, calling it a “Holy Year of Mercy”.
Pope Francis has opened the Holy Door of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to launch the Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy.
Tens of thousands attended a Mass in St Peter’s Square for the start of Pope Francis’ “revolution of tenderness”.
The Mass took place amid tight security with extra police and soldiers deployed, and a no-fly zone imposed.
Under the year’s theme of mercy, Pope Francis has said priests can absolve women who have had abortions.
During the jubilee celebrations, one of the most important events in the Roman Catholic Church, pilgrims travel to Rome and religious sites around the world.
At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis opened the huge bronze Holy Door. He said that by passing through it, Catholics should take on the role of the Good Samaritan.
It is the first time the Holy Door has been opened since the Great Jubilee in the 2000 called for by St John Paul II. It has been bricked up since then.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, 88, also attended today’s event.
Italian security forces are on high alert following recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
Visitors to St Peter’s Square had to pass through metal detectors and undergo bag and body checks.
Announcing the extraordinary jubilee in March, Pope Francis said the Holy Door was a “Door of Mercy, through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope”.
For the first time, the pontiff has instructed churches and cathedrals to take part in the tradition of the Holy Door, to help Catholics mark the jubilee at home rather than coming to Rome.
Pope Francis has long signaled his wish to change the Church’s approach from condemnation of wrongdoing to a Church that is more forgiving and understanding of its flock.
This extraordinary jubilee year is seen as a practical way of giving expression to that wish.
Pope Francis took many by surprise when he announced in September that, as part of the jubilee, parish priests across the world would be allowed to absolve repentant women who asked for forgiveness for having an abortion, even though Church teaching still terms abortion a grave sin.
What Are Jubilee Years?
Jubilee years are rooted in the Old Testament tradition of freeing slaves and prisoners once every 50 years, a concept that died out within Judaism but was taken up by Pope Boniface VIII for the Catholic Church in 1300.
Pilgrimages to Rome were at the heart of the original jubilee years, and attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the city, many willing to pay for “indulgences” – the eradication by the Church of the spiritual debt arising from sin.
It was a tradition that not only contributed copious cash to the Vatican’s coffers, but also contributed to the theological turmoil that led to the establishment of rival Protestant churches across much of northern Europe.
The last Jubilee was called by St John Paul II to mark the millennium, and this Holy Year of Mercy starts on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2015, and will end on the Feast of Christ the King on November 20, 2016.