Filipino Catholics mark Palm Sunday praying for Pope Francis' health

People wearing face masks and face shields as protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) raise palm fronds after a Palm Sunday mass outside the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 28, 2021. REUTERS/Lisa Marie David

ANTIPOLO, Philippines (Reuters) - Thousands of Filipino Catholics attending church on Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week with prayers for the health of Pope Francis as they presented palm fronds to be blessed.

At a church in Antipolo City about 20 km (12.4 miles) east of Manila, hundreds of devotees attended morning mass and waved palm fronds as a sign of discipleship and remembrance of Jesus Christ.

Once blessed, the palms are placed outside worshippers' homes in the belief they will ward off evil spirits.

Demilyn Mendoza, 34, has been attending Palm Sunday celebrations for years and hopes her daughter will continue the tradition.

"It is important for me to attend the Palm Sunday service because this has been a tradition for us Catholics, and this shows our devotion to Jesus," she said. Filipino Catholics this year offered prayers for Pope Francis, who was hospitalised on Wednesday after complaining of difficulty breathing.

The pope was discharged from hospital on Saturday after successful treatment for a severe bout of bronchitis and attended a Palm Sunday service in St Peter's Square.

"I prayed for his safety," Mendoza said. "I hope he has a longer life and is able to get over his condition."

While the Vatican has looked to play down worries over the pope's health, his sudden hospitalisation highlighted the 86-year-old pontiff's increasing frailty.

"We should all continue praying for our Pope Francis this Lenten season. Let us include him in our prayers, as we pray for our loved ones who are sick," parish priest Reynante Tolentino said.

Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday, marks the last week of Lent, when Christians are called on to fast, pray and give alms to the needy. About 80% of the Philippines' more than 110 million people are Roman Catholics.

(Reporting by Jay Ereno and Peter Blaza; Editing by Edmund Klamann)

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