VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI led the traditional procession and mass to mark Palm Sunday in St. Peter's square, thronged with thousands of faithful celebrating the start of the Holy Week leading to Easter.
For the third consecutive year, the pontiff arrived on his "popemobile" and not on foot amid the crowds gathered for the open-air mass. An altar was erected at the foot of the obelisk in the middle of the square and nearby an olive grove reconstructed with 13 olive trees.
Benedict XVI, who will turn 85 on April 16, appeared to be in good shape, despite only returning on Thursday from a demanding six-day visit of Mexico and Cuba.
Wearing red liturgical robes to symbolize life, the pontiff blessed the palms brandished by the faithful, including thousands of youngsters, as Palm Sunday coincides with "World Youth Day" celebrated by young Catholics in every diocese all over the world.
The pope then mounted the steps to St. Peter's where he led mass for Palm Sunday, which he said was "the great doorway leading into Holy Week".
In his homily, the pope asked: "Who is Jesus of Nazareth for us? What idea do we have of the Messiah, what idea do we have of God? It is a crucial question, one we cannot avoid, not least because during this very week we are called to follow our king who chooses the cross as his throne.
"We are called to follow a Messiah who promises us not an easy earthly happiness, but the happiness of heaven, divine beatitude. So we must ask ourselves: what are our true expectations? What are our deepest desires, with which we have come here today to celebrate Palm Sunday and to begin our Celebrations of Holy Week?"
For Christians, Palm Sunday commemorates Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, welcomed by crowds waving palm branches, before his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.