ROME – Speaking aloud briefly and in a raspy voice, and skipping his prepared homily altogether, a clearly fatigued Pope Francis presided over the traditional Palm Sunday Mass today, a liturgy that opens the holiest period on the annual Christian calendar.

Later, the pontiff managed to deliver his traditional Angelus message at the conclusion of the Mass in his own voice, but appeared at times to be struggling to catch his breath.

The 87-year-old pontiff has been struggling for weeks from difficulties in breathing and speaking, related to what the Vatican has described variously as colds, the flu, and bronchitis, and has often asked aides to read his prepared texts aloud at various public events.

During the Palm Sunday Mass, Francis delivered prayers but, at the conclusion of the lengthy Gospel reading, it was announced that he had decided not to deliver his homily, and the liturgy proceeded directly to the Profession of Faith. It was believed to be the first time, at least in recent memory, that no homily was delivered during a papal Palm Sunday Mass.

Pope Francis presided over the Palm Sunday Mass but did not celebrate, a task which was instead entrusted to Italian Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches. During the Eucharistic prayers, the pontiff was seated in a large white chair facing the altar while Gugerotti recited the Eucharistic prayers.

More than 400 clerics concelebrated today’s Palm Sunday Mass, including 30 cardinals, 25 bishops and 350 priests, while more than 400 people carried palms and olive branches during the opening process. Attendance at the Mass was estimated at 60,000 people.

During his brief Angelus message, Francis said he was praying “for the victims of the vile terrorist attack carried out the other night in Moscow,” referring to the assault on a concert hall Friday night which, at latest count, left 133 people dead and another 140 wounded. Responsibility for the assault has been claimed by the Islamic State, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine may have been involved.

Francis called such attacks “inhuman actions that offend God, who commanded ‘thou shall not kill.'”

At the conclusion of Sunday’s Mass, Francis took his traditional swing through St. Peter’s Square in the Popemobile in order to greet the crowd. That was considered significant, in part because on Wednesday, at he conclusion of his weekly General Audience, he was unable to mount the few steps leading to the Popemobile and was constrained to leave the square in a wheelchair.

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