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Pope presides over Easter Vigil, delivers 10-minute homily after skipping Good Friday at last minute

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis presided over the Vatican's somber Easter Vigil service on Saturday night, delivering a 10-minute homily and baptizing eight people, a day after suddenly skipping the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum as a health precaution.

Francis entered the darkened, silent St. Peter's Basilica in his wheelchair, took his place in a chair and offered an opening prayer. Sounding somewhat congested and out of breath, he blessed an elaborately decorated Easter candle, the flame of which was then shared with other candles until the whole basilica twinkled.

Over an hour later, Francis delivered a 10-minute homily in a strong voice, clearing his throat occasionally.

The evening service, one of the most solemn and important moments in the Catholic liturgical calendar, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. The Vatican had said Francis skipped the Good Friday procession to ensure his participation in both the vigil service Saturday night, which usually lasts about two hours, and Easter Sunday Mass a few hours later.

The 87-year-old Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter that have made it difficult for him to speak at length. He and the Vatican have said he has had bronchitis, a cold or the flu.

He has canceled some audiences and often asked an aide to read aloud some of his speeches. But the alarm was raised when he ditched his Palm Sunday homily altogether last week at the last minute and then decided suddenly Friday to stay home rather than preside over the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion.

The Vatican said in a brief explanation that the decision was made to “conserve his health.”

The decision appeared to have paid off Saturday night, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of the lengthy vigil service, and perform the sacrament of baptism for the eight adults. The baptism is a traditional feature of the Vatican's Easter Vigil service.

In his homily Francis referred to the stone that the faithful believe was removed from Christ’s tomb after his death. Francis urged Catholics to remove the stones in their lives that “block the door of our hearts, stifling life, extinguishing hope, imprisoning us in the tomb of our fears and regrets.”

“Let us lift our eyes to him and ask that the power of his resurrection may roll away the heavy stones that weigh down our souls,” he said.

Holy Week is trying for a pope under any circumstance, given four days of liturgies, rites, fasting and prayer. But that is especially true for Francis, who cancelled a trip to Dubai late last year, with just days to go, on doctor’s orders because of his respiratory problems.

In addition to his respiratory problems, Francis had a chunk of his large intestine removed in 2021 and was hospitalized twice last year, including once to remove intestinal scar tissue from previous surgeries to address diverticulosis, or bulges in his intestinal wall. He has been using a wheelchair or cane for nearly two years because of bad knee ligaments.

In his recently published memoirs, “Life: My Story Through History,” Francis said he isn’t suffering from any health problems that would require him to resign and that he still has “ many projects to bring to fruition.”