In the simple pastoral style of a parish priest, Pope Francis led the Vatican’s Easter celebrations, offering clear and accessible teachings in both word and action that principally instructed the faithful on how to draw near to the risen Christ.
He began the Easter Triduum by taking the unprecedented step of celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a young offenders’ detention center just outside of Rome on Holy Thursday instead of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, where it is usually held.
Pope Francis celebrated the Mass for 50 young men and women, as well as staff, volunteers and officials, at the Casa del Marmo Institute. He stressed the importance of service by washing the feet of 12 prisoners. As cardinal, the Pope had washed feet on Holy Thursday in prisons and hospices.
The washing of the feet ceremony, which the Pope explained follows Jesus’ example of washing the feet of his apostles, is a sign that means "I am at your service" and teaches us that "we have to help each other." Similarly, he said in his homily, it should prompt each person to think: "Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this: to serve us, to help us."
The Vatican said the prisoners whose feet the Pope washed were of different nationalities and religious confessions, among them two girls, one of whom was a Muslim from Serbia. This is a departure from canon law that says only men should have their feet washed. Some have argued the Pope should have issued a decree instead of simply disregarding the rule, one that many priests have tried hard to maintain.
But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi dismissed the criticism, saying the Pope’s gesture "should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy of the Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions."
Despite the controversy, the Holy Father’s unusual act was broadly well received, most notably by a youth detention center in Los Angeles, where young offenders wrote brief letters commending the Pope.
"Society has given up on us; thank you, that you have not given up on us," said one, according to a Vatican Radio report. Another wrote, "I know one day, with people like you, us kids won’t be given sentences that will keep us in prison for the rest of our lives."
At the celebration of the Passion of the Lord in St. Peter’s Basilica on Good Friday, the papal preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, recalled the current Year of Faith and stressed how Christ’s death and resurrection give urgency to evangelization. He argued that, for evangelization to be effective, the Church must rid itself of impediments — "excess of bureaucracy, the residue of past ceremonials, laws and disputes" — so the message "may come out of it as free and joyous as when the Messenger began his run."
In the evening, Pope Francis presided over the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum. He explained that God is not silent in the face of evil, but has spoken through the cross of Christ. Man condemns himself, he said, if he refuses to embrace God’s love, but God "never condemns; he only loves and saves."
The meditations on the 14 Stations of the Cross were written by Lebanese youth and recalled violence in the Middle East, abuse of women and children, Christian division and the promotion of abortion.
"Let us walk together along the Way of the Cross, and let us do so carrying in our hearts this word of love and forgiveness," the Pope said, and he thanked his Lebanese "brothers and sisters" for their witness and for writing the "beautiful" reflections that were read during the prayer time. He recalled Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon last year and the hope the country gave for peaceful coexistence between Christians, Muslims and others.
Before the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday, the Pope sent a video message to viewers on the occasion of the first televised showing of the holy Shroud of Turin — what Benedict XVI once described as the "icon of Holy Saturday." Pope Francis noted the "great peace" and the meaning the image conveys. "A restrained but powerful energy" shines through, he said, "as if to say: Have faith; do not lose hope; the power of the love of God, the power of the Risen One, overcomes all things."
In his homily at the Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter’s, the Pope counseled the faithful not to be afraid of the newness God asks of us.
"Let the risen Jesus enter your life," he said. "Welcome him as a friend, with trust: He is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk; you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid; trust him; be confident that he is close to you. He is with you, and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do."
The Holy Father also ministered to the faithful on how to overcome fear, as the women overcame their fear at the empty tomb, by remembering their encounters with Jesus. "To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have traveled: This is what opens our hearts to hope for the future," the Pope said. "May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives."
In his first message urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world) on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis said Christ’s resurrection allows us to be renewed by God’s mercy and to be transformed. We become agents of his mercy, he said, and "channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish."
He called in particular for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, in Iraq and for "dear Syria." He also highlighted other conflict areas in Mali, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and the Korean peninsula.
"May the risen Lord, who defeated sin and death, sustain us all, especially the weakest and those most in need," he said in unscripted remarks at the end. "May the risen Christ guide all of you and all of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace!"
In his "Regina Coeli" address on Easter Monday, the Pope reminded the faithful that it is up to each person to embrace Christ’s victory. Baptism, he said, "must be reflected in attitudes, behaviors, actions and choices," and he stressed that the sacraments at Easter are "an enormous source of strength for renewal in personal and family life, as well as for social relations."
But he added that "everything passes through the human heart" and that it is important to let God’s grace "change for the better whatever is not good in me," thereby allowing the victory of Christ "to affirm itself in my life, to broaden its beneficial action."