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Pope Francis takes two schoolboys for a ride in his Popemobile before beginning Easter duties

Francis invited the children to hop aboard during his general audience in St Peter's Square

He is renowned for doing things very much his own way, and on Wednesday Pope Francis took two children for a once-in-a-lifetime ride in his Popemobile.

On the eve of four busy days of events in the lead up to Easter, the Church’s most important festival of the year, Francis greeted a group of schoolchildren from Perugia during his general audience in St Peter’s Square.

The Pope disembarked from his white, open-air car to receive a T-shirt from the children’s school, before asking if any of them wanted to take a spin through the square.

The excited youngsters shouted, “Me! Me! Me!”, but it was 11-year-olds Livio Bastianelli and Davide Maria Bianchi who were chosen to hitch a ride.

Livio told the Associated Press: “I was really excited. That never happens!”

But amid Francis’ joviality, there was more serious work to be done. On Thursday the Pope led a solemn Holy Thursday service to commemorate the day on which Catholics believe Jesus founded the priesthood, at the Last Supper with his apostles, before he was betrayed and arrested on the night before his crucifixion.

Maintaining his view that priests should shun material comforts or the urge to climb the clerical career ladder, Francis delivered a sermon on the need for priests to live a simple, poor life and he said the Church should be a refuge for the poor, the homeless and the sick.

In a “Mass of the Chrism”, held in St Peter’s Basilica, Francis and priests renewed their vows in front of some 10,000 people and a pontifical choir.

The Pope described the Church as “a house with open doors, a refuge for sinners, a home for people living on the streets, a place of loving care for the sick, a camp for the young, a classroom”.

Later on Thursday, Francis was to travel to a rehabilitation centre on the outskirts of Rome, where he was to wash and kiss the feet of 12 sick and disabled people, in a service commemorating Jesus’s gesture of humility to his apostles on the night before he died.

On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Francis will lead three services going into Easter Sunday, during which he will deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message.

The following Sunday (27 April) will see the canonisation of Pope John Paul II, who led the Church from 1978 to 2005, as well as Pope John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963. The latter was responsible for calling the Second Vatican Council, which modernised the Church.

Additional reporting by agencies