Pope Francis leads Palm Sunday service, bounces back from illness
Pope presides over 2-hour long Palm Sunday service
Pontiff shows no ill effects from hospital stay
Help people who are suffering and alone, he says
Adds final message, end of service
By Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY, April 2 (Reuters) -Pope Francis led a Palm Sunday service the day after he was discharged from hospital following a bout of bronchitis, and urged the world to take better care of the poor, the lonely and the infirm.
Thousands of people waved palm and olive branches as Francis was driven into St. Peter's Square sitting in the back of a white, open-topped vehicle before the start of the Mass, which lasted two hours.
"I thank you for your participation and also for your prayers, which intensified during these past days. Thank you," he said at the end of the service in an apparent reference to his recent illness, drawing loud applause from the crowd.
The pope, 86, was taken to Rome's Gemelli hospital on Wednesday after complaining of breathing difficulties, but recovered quickly following an infusion of antibiotics and returned to his Vatican residence on Saturday.
Looking to allay concerns about his health, the Vatican has said he will take part in a full array of Easter events this week, the busiest period in the Roman Catholic Church calendar, starting with the open-air Palm Sunday service.
The pontiff, wearing red vestments, spoke with a quiet, but clear voice as he addressed a crowd estimated by police to be 60,000-strong. For most of the service he remained seated, but he stood at the end for a final blessing.
In his homily he called on people not to ignore those experiencing great suffering and solitude.
"Today their numbers are legion. 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," he said.
Speaking at the end of the Mass, the pope, as he often does, recalled "the battered people of Ukraine", and urged the faithful to pray for an end to the war.
WAVING TO THE CROWD
Francis, who marked the 10th anniversary of his pontificate in March, has suffered a number of ailments in recent years, including severe knee pain, which means he uses a cane and often a wheelchair in his public appearances.
His difficulties with mobility have limited his participation at some events, and as happened last year, a senior cardinal celebrated the actual Mass on Sunday.
At the end of the ceremony, the pope was driven slowly around the square for around 10 minutes. He waved and smiled at the well-wishers and appeared in good spirits.
"We are very happy to see him and considering what has happened over the past few days, we think he looks quite well," said Antonio Donatelli, a tourist from southern Italy.
Palm Sunday marks the day that the Bible says Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds, the week before Christian believe he rose from the dead following his execution on the Cross.
On Holy Thursday, Francis will celebrate Mass in a prison for juveniles in Rome, but it was not yet clear if he would participate in the traditional Good Friday Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome's ancient Colosseum.
However, the pope, head of the world's nearly 1.4 billion Roman Catholics, will preside over the Mass on Easter Sunday, the most important day on the Christian liturgical calendar, where he is expected to read his "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message.
Additional reporting by Jaime Lopez and Roberto Mignucci
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Frances Kerry
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