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ROME – Despite being discharged from the hospital just a day prior, Pope Francis presided over an outdoor Palm Sunday Mass in a brisk St. Peter’s Square, telling believers to embrace those who feel abandoned like Jesus did on the cross.
Francis led Sunday’s Mass from a chair in front of the main altar, while the vice dean of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, fellow Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, celebrated at the altar.
By now, this mode of leading papal liturgies has become customary for Francis, who suffers from sciatica and chronic knee pain which, for the past year, has left him confined to a wheelchair or the use of a cane.
The 86-year-old pontiff was hospitalized Wednesday afternoon after experiencing breathing difficulties, which are especially alarming for Francis as he had part of one lung removed after a severe bout of pneumonia when he was a young Jesuit.
Initially the Vatican said Pope Francis had gone into Rome’s Gemelli hospital for “previously planned check-ups,” however, it was later reported that the pope had experienced respiratory troubles and had gone to the hospital for tests.
He was admitted and diagnosed with a respiratory infection and bronchitis, an inflammation of the tubes that carry air to and from the lungs which is usually caused by an infection. He received antibiotics administered intravenously and responded well to the treatment.
Pope Francis carried out light work duties while in the hospital and visited sick children in Gemelli’s pediatric oncology and infant neuro-surgery wards. He was discharged Saturday morning.
As he was leaving the hospital, a happy but tired-looking pope spoke briefly with reporters, telling them “I’m still alive” when asked how he felt and confirming his plans to participate in his Holy Week liturgies.
In a statement Saturday, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Holy Week ceremonies would proceed as planned before the pope’s hospital stay, with the pope presiding and delivering his homily, and a cardinal celebrating at the altar.
On Sunday, Francis entered a roughly three-quarters full St. Peter’s Square in his popemobile and was driven to the obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square, where he began Palm Sunday Mass. After the cardinals and other concelebrants processed to the main altar, the pope followed in his popemobile and incensed the altar before taking his seat.
In his homily, the pope, who spoke with a weak but clear voice, and who did not exhibit particular problems breathing, focused on Jesus’s declaration in the day’s lengthy Gospel reading, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
He said the word “forsake” has a powerful meaning in the bible, and is used in “moments of extreme pain.”
These moments, he said, include “love that fails, or is rejected or betrayed; children who are rejected and aborted; situations of repudiation, the lot of widows and orphans; broken marriages, forms of social exclusion, injustice and oppression; the solitude of sickness.”
“In a word, in the drastic severing of the bonds that unite us to others. Christ brought all of this to the cross; upon his shoulders, he bore the sins of the world,” he said.
Asking believers why Jesus would do this, Pope Francis said it was done “in order to be completely and definitively one with us. So that none of us would ever again feel alone and beyond hope.”
Francis departed from his prepared text periodically to offer some off-the-cuff remarks, telling faithful at one point that “today this is not a show,” and that “each one heard the abandonment of Jesus, (and) each one of us says, for me. This abandonment is the price he paid for me.”
“Whenever you or I or anyone else seems pinned to the wall, lost in a blind alley, plunged into the abyss of abandonment, sucked into a whirlwind of ‘whys,’ there can still be hope. It is not the end, because Jesus was there and even now, he is at your side,” he said.
Francis said God saves humanity from within their deepest “why?” and that from within that painful question, “He opens the horizon of hope.”
“On the cross, even as he felt utter abandonment, Jesus refused to yield to despair; instead, he prayed and trusted,” he said, noting that Jesus commended himself to the hands of the Father after raising this question, meaning that, “In the hour of his abandonment, Jesus continued to trust.”
Jesus also continued to love the disciples even though they had fled, leaving him alone, and he forgave those who crucified him, the pope said.
“Here we see the abyss of our evil immersed in a greater love, with the result that our isolation becomes fellowship, our distance becomes closeness, and our darkness becomes light…We see who God truly is, and how much he loves us,” he said.
This love, the pope said, can transform hearts of stone into hearts of tenderness and compassion, and it should inspire believers to love others who feel alone or abandoned in the same way that Jesus did.
“Christ, in his abandonment, stirs us to seek him and to love him and those who are themselves abandoned. For in them we see not only people in need, but Jesus himself, abandoned,” he said.
This, Francis said, is why Jesus wants his followers to care for those “who resemble him most, those experiencing extreme suffering and solitude.”
Noting that there are many people in the world who are suffering, he recalled a homeless man who died under the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square several weeks ago, and said that as pope, “I also need some caresses, some people close to me, and I go to find them in those who are abandoned, the castoffs.”
The number of people experiencing this suffering and loneliness today “are legion,” he said, saying, “entire peoples are exploited and abandoned; the poor live on our streets and we look the other way; migrants are no longer faces but numbers; prisoners are disowned; people written off as problems.”
“Countless other abandoned persons are in our midst, invisible, hidden, discarded with white gloves: unborn children, the elderly who live alone, the sick whom no one visits, the disabled who are ignored, and the young burdened by great interior emptiness, with no one prepared to listen to their cry of pain,” he said.
In his own abandonment, Jesus asks believers to open their eyes and hearts to “to all who find themselves abandoned,” Pope Francis said, insisting that for Christians, “no man, woman or child can be regarded as an outcast, no one left to himself or herself.”
Calling those who are rejected and excluded “living icons of Christ,” Francis said, “they remind us of his reckless love, his forsakenness that delivers us from every form of loneliness and isolation.”
“Today, let us implore this grace: to love Jesus in his abandonment and to love Jesus in the abandoned all around us,” the pope said, saying, “May we not allow his voice to go unheard amid the deafening silence of indifference. God has not left us alone; let us care, then, for those who feel alone and abandoned.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen