Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis used his first Easter homily to call for peace around the world and to decry greed, before taking a spin through the hundreds of thousands of worshipers in the popemobile and greeting the faithful.
Speaking from main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, Francis specifically mentioned conflicts in Syria, between Israel and the Palestinians, between North and South Korea, and in Africa in a plea for peace. Police estimated the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square to be at least 300,000 - the largest crowd yet to see the new pope.
In his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the City and the World) message, the pope also denounced what he said was a search for "easy gain" in a greedy world, and he called for better protection of the environment, urging the world to be better "guardians" of creation.
His messages and his image as a humble and spiritual figure resonated with the enthusiastic crowd, whose numbers were no doubt buoyed by the crisp and clear weather following weeks of mostly gray skies in Rome. To keep the focus on the pope's message, officials used loudspeakers to broadcast a plea to the crowd not to waive flags or applaud during the service.
"He is an example for all of us," said Rosanna Malatesta, a 59-year-old church worker from Rome. "The leadership of such a holy man is something the world badly needs today."
Added Stella Niccolini, 50, a high school history teacher: "When a man of peace calls for peace, the world should listen."
Pope Francis arrives to lead a open-air Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.(Photo: Alessandra Tarantino, AP)
Francis spoke mostly in Italian, skipping the step of offering Easter blessings in multiple languages, a tradition started by Pope John Paul II. Before the service, Vatican press officials said he would bless the crowd in 65 languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Chinese, Latin, and Esperanto. But he deviated from the script and skipped that step.
Two and a half weeks into Francis' papacy, it is no longer novel to those at St. Peter's that he is the first pope from the Americas or the first Jesuit to become pontiff. Many expert observers joined the faithful in the square in saying they were eager to see what the future held for the pope.
"There are clear phases to a new papacy," Alistair Sear, a priest and a church historian, said before the Easter service. "When we first find out who the new pope is, everyone wants to know what he is like, what are his priorities. With Pope Francis, we now know all that. Soon he will have to begin the difficult tasks of reforming Vatican institutions."
It's a sentiment that Annie Harrison, 39, an IT specialist from Chicago vacationing in Rome and Vatican City, shared: "He is a good and holy man," she said. "Now we will have to see how effective he can be at modernizing the church."
Among the issues Francis must confront in the coming weeks: Pedophilia priest scandals reaching higher up the church hierarchy, issues related to transparency in the Vatican, charges of financial malfeasance at the Vatican bank, and reforms of the powerful Roman Curia, the church's main administrative bureaucracy.
But for many visitors Sunday, those issues can wait at least a little longer.
"It was very moving to see such a diverse crowd of people from all over the world," said Arlene Gibbs, an interior decorator from Verona, N.J., who lives in Rome.
Rome native Nello Di Martino, 21, a university student, agreed. "I am overcome by emotion," he said, wiping away tears. "I did not expect to be so emotional. I grew up Catholic, but am not particularly religious. But being here I just felt a wave of emotion.
"I am very hopeful the new pope can do his part to make the world more peaceful and more kind and better."