Pope leads Easter Mass in packed Vatican square

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, packed with about 100,000 pilgrims and tourists and ablaze in the bright colors of spring flowers as the faithful marked the church's most joyous day of the year.

While choir voices rang out across the cobblestone square in late morning, thousands of more people were still arriving, streaming up the boulevard leading from the Tiber to the Vatican, to hear the pontiff deliver the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" message, Latin for "to the city and to the world."



Resplendent in gold-colored robes, Benedict led the ceremony from an altar set up on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, under a red canopy to shield him from rain or sun. Skies over the Vatican alternated between clouds and peeks of sun.



The 84-year-old Benedict looked relaxed, although his voice cracked a bit as he intoned prayers during the sung parts of the Mass. His voice had sounded hoarse at times the previous evening, when the pope led a late-night Easter Vigil Mass lit by candles in the basilica.



On Sunday, the square was a riot of color, with rows of flowers in full bloom, red-hatted cardinals and tourists waving scarves and flags from their homelands.



The blossoms seemed almost as numerous as the faithful. The Dutch suppliers of the floral decoration said some 41,000 potted plants studded the square. The flowers included 500 potted hyacinths, 150 lily plants, 1,000 off-white roses, azaleas, tulips, and 10,000 narcissus plants, many of them in yellow and white, the official Vatican colors, and arranged in neat, rows up the slope toward the altar.



After the Gospel was read, selected faithful came up to the pope, who, seated at the altar, accepted their symbolic offertory gifts. Benedict smiled warmly as three young Italian girls, wearing perfectly pressed Easter dresses, struggled to kneel neatly before him. They were presented by their parents to the pope.



Benedict prayed aloud that Easter would help believers testify to their faith with "words and life." Shoring up flagging faith in much of the Western world has been a key goal of the Vatican, both under Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II.



Benedict will return to the square in exactly one week to lead a crowd expected to be at least double Easter's turnout when he beatifies John Paul, putting the Polish-born, long-serving pontiff on the last formal step before eventual sainthood.

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