VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis, condemning the "blind violence" of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, offered his prayers to the victims, the injured, their families and all those offering assistance in the aftermath of the bombings.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent the pope's condolences March 22 to Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels.
"The Holy Father again condemns the blind violence which causes so much suffering, and he implores from God the gift of peace," the message said.
The pope "entrusts to God's mercy those who died and, in prayer, he shares the pain of their loved ones," the message said. "He expresses his deepest sympathy to the injured and their families, as well as for all those providing assistance, "asking the Lord to give them comfort and consolation amid this ordeal."
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters the attacks in Brussels would not lead to any changes in Pope Francis' Holy Week and Easter schedule. Already for the Year of Mercy, especially after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, the Italian police presence at the Vatican has been increased.
Three nearly simultaneous attacks – two at the Brussels airport and one on the Brussels area of Maalbeek, near where much of the European Union is based – left at least 31 dead and dozens more injured. At least one of the airport attacks was attributed to a suicide bomber.
The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for the Brussels Metro said 20 people were killed and more than 100 injured in an explosion on a train, and Belgian media reported at least 11 dead in two explosions at the airport, with many others injured. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
After the attacks, Belgium raised its terror alert to the highest level.
Belgium's Catholic bishops said they shared "the anguish of thousands of passengers and their families, aviation professionals and aid teams called to the breach once more."
The bishops said airport chaplains were "at the daily service of all," and would "offer the necessary spiritual service," adding that it counted on the whole country to "live through these days with great civic responsibility."
Brussels Auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols told the church's Cathobel news agency he was shocked by the savagery of the "completely absurd attacks."
"We must support the efforts of the public authorities we've elected and mandated to serve the common good and maintain law and order – it's not for us to start polemicizing and making accusations today as to whether they fulfilled their duties and did all they could," Bishop Kockerols said.
"It's a great mystery that this has all happened on the threshold of Holy Week, the most sacred time for Christians, when we are about to mark Good Friday and Easter. In the face of such madness, we should adopt the courageous attitude of Mary, who remained at the foot of the cross in silence."
Cathobel issued an emergency number for those seeking information about missing family members and said it had been in contact with Father Michel Gaillard, the Brussels airport chief chaplain.
Meanwhile, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who heads the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, or COMECE, said Catholics would be "praying especially in Holy Week" for victims of the violence.
In a statement, he said he had been concerned about COMECE staffers, who later issued a message confirming that all personnel were safe.
A bishops' conference staffer, Father Geert Lesage, told Catholic News Service he expected Catholic clergy to visit sites of the attacks to offer pastoral care, as well as to organize special Masses as soon as security conditions permitted.
However, he added that all mobile phone connections were now down in Brussels, making it impossible to obtain news of Catholic victims or damage to church property.
Father Charles De Clercq, a Brussels priest, told Cathobel he had been in the first car of the bombed Metro train, which had been "plunged into darkness and filled with smoke" after the explosion.
"Smashed windows fell on my knees ... there was light, smoke and shouts. The driver arrived after two minutes with a lamp and made the passengers leave via an emergency window," the priest said.
"On the floor, passengers were curled up, obviously in pain, who could have been crushed by those in flight. I knew there'd been two explosions in the morning at Zaventem (airport), so I knew there was a real possibility this was also an attack."
A day earlier, gunmen in Bamako, Mali, targeted a hotel that was serving as the headquarters of an EU troops who were there to train the country's military. Mali and other West African countries have been under attack by Islamic extremists.
Catholic Relief Services, which has programs in Mali, announced March 22 that its staffers were safe after the attack.
Contributing to this story was Jonathan Luxmoore in Oxford, England.