(Photo: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Pope Francis greeted more than 40,000 people from Italy and other countries who had gathered for a pro-life event at Saint Peter's Square after marching against abortion on Sunday, and praised their efforts to highlight the importance of respect for human life.
"I greet the participants of the March for Life which took place this morning in Rome and invite everyone to stay focused on the important issue of respect for human life, from the moment of conception," Catholic News Agency quoted the pope as saying at St. Peter's Basilica.
There were about 80,000 people, half of whom were there for the Regina Coeli prayer, an ancient Latin Marian Hymn, led by the pope after he canonized some 800 new saints.
"I am pleased to recall the petition that today takes place in many Italian parishes, in order to support the initiative European 'One of Us' to ensure legal protection to the embryo, protecting every human being from the first moment of its existence," the pope added.
The "One of Us" movement is comprised of primarily independent anti-abortion Roman Catholic groups which are seeking to gain one million signatures in seven of 27 countries in the European Union by November. Should the petition gain one million signatures by that time, the European Parliament will be forced to schedule a debate on the issue of life at conception.
The pontiff said there was a need for a law to "protect all human beings from the first moment of their existence."
Pope Francis also announced that the "Evangelium Vitae Day" will be held in the Vatican as part of the Year of Faith, on June 15 and 16. Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life, is the name of the 1995 encyclical written by Pope John Paul II which expresses the position of the Catholic Church regarding the value and inviolability of human life.
After his address, the pope made his way through the square in the popemobile to greet the crowds that were part of the pro-life march, according to Rome Reports. He crossed the Vatican border into Italian territory to be closer to crowds lining the streets. He also greeted children and the sick.
Earlier during the day, the pope canonized Antonio Primaldo and his companion martyrs, also known as the Martyrs of Otranto, who were 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy. They were killed in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam after the city fell to an Ottoman force. They were beatified in 1771.
"The martyrs of Otranto help the beloved Italian people to look with hope to the future, trusting in the nearness of God who never abandons, even in difficult times," the pope said. "While we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, ask God to support the many Christians who still suffer from violence and give them the courage and fate and respond to evil with goodness."
Pope Francis also canonized the first Colombian-born saint and teacher and a Mexican vowed religious who co-founded the Congregation of the Handmaids of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Poor.