ROME— In vintage Pope Francis style, the pontiff broke with tradition and delivered an off-the-cuff homily for Easter Sunday, one of the very few improvised speeches in such a solemn setting from a pope who’s used to putting his prepared remarks aside to speak from the heart on more informal occasions.

“Jesus has risen from the dead,” Francis said. “And this is not a fantasy. It’s not a celebration with many flowers [pointing at the arrangements surrounding him]. This is beautiful, but [the resurrection] is more.”

Pope Francis celebrates the Easter Mass, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini.)
Pope Francis celebrates the Easter Mass, in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini.)

“It is the mystery of the thrown-away stone, that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful takes the path of the use-and-throw, where that which is not useful is discarded, that stone that was discarded is the fountain of life,” he said.

And even “us, little pebbles,” who’ve been thrown in an earth full of “suffering, tragedy,” with faith in the risen Christ, “have a reason for being, amidst so much calamity. A sense to look beyond: There is not a wall, but a horizon. There’s life, joy, in there is the cross with this ambivalence.”

The pope began his remarks saying that the Church, facing “our distrust, [and] closed and fearful hearts,” continues to say, “calm down, the Lord has risen.”

But, he continued, if he has come back from the dead, “how do these things happen, so many tragedies: illnesses, human trafficking, human exploitation, wars, destruction, mutilations, vengeance, hatred?”

“Where is the Lord?” he asked aloud.

Francis then shared that on Saturday he’d phoned a young man, an engineer with a “serious illness,” and the pope told him “there are no explanations for what’s happening to you. Look at Jesus crucified, God has done this with his son. There’s no other explanation.”

To this, the pontiff said, the man answered: “Yes, but he [God] asked his Son and the Son said yes. He didn’t ask me if I wanted this.

“And this moves us. Not one of us is asked, ‘Are you happy with what’s happening in the World? Are you willing to carry this cross?’” he said.

“Today the Church continues to say, stop, Jesus is risen.”

Francis has improvised homilies before. He does so every morning in Santa Marta, behind closed doors. Every Holy Thursday, when he visits prisons or refugee centers to celebrate the Mass for the Lord’s Last Supper, and he even did so once in the middle of a tropical storm, in the Philippines, back in 2015.

Yet he’s never strayed far from the text in such a solemn context before. On this occasion, however, there was no homily, he improvised all the way.

“You, little pebble, have a reason in life. Because you’re a pebble holding on to the cornerstone, that stone that evilness of sin has discarded,” Francis said in his homily. “What does the Church say amidst so much tragedy: the stone that was discarded wasn’t … From within the heart [the Church says] Jesus is risen!”

Closing his homily, Francis called upon those present to think about the every-day problems of life, illnesses, wars, human tragedies and say, “with a humble voice, without flowers, alone, to God who’s in front of us: ‘I don’t know how this is going, but I’m sure that Christ has risen.’”

Urbi et Orbi

After the Mass, and this time staying true to the text, Pope Francis went up to the “loggia centrale,” or the central balcony in St. Peter’s Basilica overlooking the square, to deliver what is known as the Urbi et Orbi blessing.

Pope Francis waves prior to delivering his Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) message, from the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)
Pope Francis waves prior to delivering his Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) message, from the main balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

This window is used regularly twice a year, for this blessing imparted on Easter Sunday and Christmas day. It’s also the window from where a new pope is presented to the world.

Popes typically use their Easter Day Urbi et Orbi blessing, addressed “to the city and to the world,” to present a summary of the global situation, singling out what are bound to be the Vatican’s key political and social concerns for the foreseeable future.

Pope Francis held to form on Sunday, and judging by what seemed to be foremost on his mind, as proved by his improvised homily, it’s a good bet that the instruction to reach out to what he’s described as “the outskirts of society” amidst a throwaway culture will continue to loom front and center of his papacy, as has been the case for the past four years.

He spoke of the “Risen Shepherd,” meaning Christ who rose from the dead on the third day. Francis used this figure to say that he “tirelessly seek us,” with the “marks of the passion- the wounds of his merciful love- he draws on us to follow him on his way.”

Today too, Francis said, “he places upon his shoulders so many of our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms,” before listing many of them.

He began with all those “lost in the labyrinths of loneliness and marginalization.”

For a pope who’s often railed against the modern economic system, saying that this “economy kills,” having placed the “god money” at the center instead of the human person, he was at it again on Sunday, but going after the two most profitable “illegal industries:” Human slavery and drug trafficking.

The Risen Shepherd, the pope said, takes upon himself the victims of every form of slavery, inhuman labor, illegal trafficking, exploitation and decriminalization, and grave form of addictions, and those abused in their own homes.

Seeing that Francis is currently hosting both Christian and Muslim refugee families in the Vatican, the world has come to expect the Argentine pontiff to shine a light over the thousands who still venture towards Europe in overloaded rubber boats every day, with countless lives lost in the “mare mortum,” the Mediterranean Sea, which as he’s said before, has become a cemetery.

“The Risen Shepherd walks beside all those forced to leave their homelands as a result of armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, famine and oppressive regimes,” he said, placing attention also on those who look after people forced to migrate.

Expressing a hope more than stating a fact, Francis then urged the Risen Lord to “guide the steps of all those who work for justice and peace. May he grant the leaders of nations the courage they need to prevent the spread of conflicts and to put a halt to the arms trade.”

As is usually the case, the pope then “ticked off” specific conflict zones, praying in particular for the civil population in Syria, “pray to end a war that continues to sow horror and death,” the entire Middle East, particularly the Holy Land, Iraq and Yemen.

In a last-minute addition to his text, Pope Francis commented on a suicide bombing in Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday that killed roughly 100 people, most of whom were refugees waiting to be evacuated from four government-held vans. The attacker drove the powerful bomb up to buses waiting to carry people to safety, using a van meant to hold aid supplies.

“Just yesterday, there was the latest ignoble attack on refugees attempting to flee, which provoked numerous deaths and injuries,” the pope said.

Francis then turned his attention to Africa.

“May the Good Shepherd,” Francis said, remain close to South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo, all waging their own civil and ethnic wars, aggravated by a famine affecting certain parts of Africa and which has put millions of lives at risk.

Avoiding naming any country in particular, or perhaps knowing that it applies to most, he prayed for Latin America, hoping that the Risen Jesus may sustain those committed to ensuring the common good despite political and social tensions that “in some cases have resulted in violence.”

Last but not least, he prayed for Ukraine, “still beset by conflict and bloodshed,” and Europe. It’s worth remembering that the Ukraine was invaded by Russia in 2014.

Francis closed his blessing noting that all Christians this year celebrate Easter on the same date- a rare occurrence since different churches use different calendars.

“With one voice, in every part of the world, we proclaim the great message: ‘The Lord is truly risen, as he said!’ May Jesus, who vanquished the darkness of sin and death, grant peace to our days.”