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Pope Francis is skipping the Palm Sunday homily at the start of a busy Holy Week that will test his health

ROME –

Pope Francis decided at the last minute to skip his homily during Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square to avoid a strenuous speech at the start of a busy Holy Week that would test his increasingly frail health.

Francis, who was plagued by knee problems and persistent respiratory problems, also did not take part in the procession of cardinals around the obelisk in the piazza at the beginning of the mass. Instead, the 87-year-old Pope blessed the palm fronds and olive branches carried by the believers from the altar.

Francis was expected to give a homily midway through the service, and a prepared text had been distributed to journalists. But when an aide handed Francis his glasses to begin the lecture, the pope made it clear he would not walk the talk and left the crowd waiting in silence.

Vatican officials did not immediately explain why. The Vatican press office later said the sermon had been replaced by “a minute of silence and prayer.”

However, Francis said prayers throughout the service and made a long call for peace at the end of the mass. He said he was praying for the families of those who died in what he called an “inhumane” attack on a concert hall in a Moscow suburb and asked for prayers for “martyred Ukraine” and the people of Gaza.

Vatican officials estimated that around 60,000 people attended the mass, which took place under sunny, breezy spring skies. Francis spent several minutes greeting them from the Popemobile and made several laps around the piazza at the end of the service.

Palm Sunday begins a busy week for Francis, leading to Easter Sunday, when believers commemorate the resurrection of Christ. On Thursday, Francis is scheduled to travel to a women’s prison in Rome for the traditional foot-washing ritual. On Friday he is scheduled to preside over the torch-lit Stations of the Cross procession at the Colosseum in Rome, re-enacting the crucifixion of Christ.

The following day is the Easter Vigil, with Francis presiding over a solemn night service in the basilica, followed by Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square and his midday blessing from the loggia above.

The Holy Week schedule is a challenge for popes even under the best of circumstances. But that’s particularly true this year for Francis, who has been battling off and on throughout the winter with what he and the Vatican have described as flu, bronchitis or a cold. To save him the trouble, in recent weeks he has occasionally asked an aide to read his speeches and catechism lessons.

No replacement was appointed on Sunday and the sermon was missed. Vatican officials said the prepared text assumed it never existed. The pope does not normally give a sermon at Easter, but he traditionally holds reflections on Palm Sunday.

Even when he is not sick, Francis often speaks in a whisper and appears to be easily out of breath. As a young man, part of one of his lungs was removed because of a respiratory infection.

This time last year he was hospitalized for three days with acute bronchitis, but recovered to make it through Holy Week. He was hospitalized for abdominal surgery two more times during his pontificate, including a ten-day stay in 2021 during which part of his colon was removed.

At the end of the Mass, Francis said a long prayer for peace for all who suffer from war and for the Lord to comfort the victims of the “heinous terrorist attack” in Moscow.

“May he convert the hearts of those who protect, organize and carry out these inhumane acts that offend God, who commanded us not to kill,” Francis said.

Without citing Moscow, Francis also urged believers not to forget Ukraine’s suffering. He noted that many Ukrainians are now without electricity due to “intense attacks on infrastructure, which bring not only death and suffering, but also the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe of even greater proportions.”

“Please don’t forget the martyr of Ukraine,” he said. “And let us also think about Gaza, which is suffering so much, and so many other places of war.”

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