Heightened security at Vatican as Pope Francis leads Easter Sunday Mass for thousands of Catholics

Francesca Gillett

Tens of thousands of Catholics underwent massive security checks to gather in the Vatican for Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday Mass.

Armed police were stationed on rooftops, army vehicles were positioned at the Vatican entrance and metal detectors were used to check people over as they piled into St Peter’s Square to celebrate Easter, the biggest festival in the Christian calendar.

Tourists, pilgrims and people living in Rome flocked to the historic square to hear the religious leader deliver his Easter message, the Urbi et Orbi from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.

The increased security measures follows a spate of vehicle ramming attacks including in London and Stockholm.

Security: Pope Francis protected by his bodyguards as he is driven through the crowd after celebrating Easter Sunday Mass. (AP)

In an off-the-cuff speech to the crowds, the 80-year-old pontiff encouraged Catholics to hold on to their “fearful hearts” as the world is ravaged by wars, sickness and hatred.

Traditionally the pope gives no homily – or speech – during the mass and instead saves any non-religious utterings for the solemn Easter message at noon.

Pontiff: Pope Francis delivers his 'Urbi et Orbi' - the Easter message. (REUTERS)

In his Easter message, Pope Francis appeared to reference the rising tensions between North Korea and the US as he urged world leaders to stop “the spread of conflicts”.

He said: "In the complex and often dramatic situations of today's world, may the Risen Lord guide the steps of all those who work for justice and peace.

Star: Pope Francis waving to excited crowds at the Easter Sunday Mass in Vatican City. (REUTERS)

“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.”

The Roman Catholic leader also slammed the bomb attack on a bus convoy in Syria, calling it “ignoble”. He also called for peace in countries including South Sudan, Somalia, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His Easter address today comes as news broke that a 90th birthday party is being planned for former pope, Benedict XV1, whose birthday is actually Easter Sunday but will instead be celebrated on Monday.

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