VATICAN CITY Pope Francis, leading the world's 1.2 billion Catholics into Easter for the first time, on Saturday urged those who have strayed from the faith to allow God back into their lives.
Francis, who was elected on March 13, presided at a solemn Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter' Basilica to usher the Catholic Church into the most important day of its liturgical calendar.
The immense basilica, the largest church in Christendom, was in the dark for the start of the service to signify the darkness in Jesus' tomb before what Christians believe was his resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion.
Some 10,000 faithful lit candles as Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, walked up the main aisle, and then the basilica's lights were turned on.
The 76-year-old Francis, wearing relatively plain white vestments - as opposed to the more elaborate robes preferred by his predecessor Benedict - delivered a simple homily recounting the Bible story of the women who went to Jesus's tomb but were surprised to find it empty.
He urged his listeners not to be "afraid of God's surprises," never to lose confidence during the trials and tribulations of daily life, and, if they have strayed, to let God back into their lives.
"Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms," he said, speaking in Italian.
"If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won't be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don't be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do," he said.
Another difference between Francis and his predecessor is that Francis reads his homilies standing behind a lectern like an ordinary priest instead of while seated on a throne.
He is still living in the same Vatican guesthouse where he stayed during the conclave that elected him the first non-European pope in 1,300 years instead of moving into the spacious and regal papal apartments in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
Francis has also been inviting ordinary people to his morning Mass at the guesthouse, including Vatican street sweepers and gardeners and staff of the guest house.
During Saturday night's service he presided at another Easter vigil tradition by baptising four new adult members of the Church. They were from Italy, Albania, Russia and the United States.
Holy Saturday was the third of four hectic days leading up to Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
On Easter Sunday he will celebrate another Mass and then deliver his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tens of thousands of people in the square below.
The balcony is the same spot where he first appeared to the world as pope on the night of March 13 after his election.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Jason Webb)