The pontiff, prelates and other faithful also clutching candles appeared as slow-moving points of light in darkness, part of a procession symbolising Christians' belief that Jesus triumphed over death by resurrection following crucifixion.
At the chant in Latin for "light of Christ", the basilica's lights were suddenly switched on.
Francis then reached the central altar to celebrate Easter vigil mass.
During the service, he encouraged people to resist cynicism or pursuing the "glitter of wealth", and to avoid seeking life's meaning in "things that pass away".
"Do not bury hope," Francis exclaimed, after noting that when things go badly, "we lose heart and come to believe that death is stronger than life".
He warned: "We become cynical, negative and despondent.
"Sin seduces; it promises things easy and quick, prosperity and success, but leaves behind only solitude and death.
"Sin is looking for life among the dead, for the meaning of life in things that pass away."
VIDEO: Pope Francis presided over the Easter Vigil at St. Peter's Basilica pic.twitter.com/F0CNzsHa3p— EWTN Vatican (@EWTNVatican) 20 April 2019
Encouraging the faithful, Francis said: "Why not prefer Jesus, the true light, to the glitter of wealth, career, pride and pleasure?"
Among those attending the service were eight people being baptised by the Pope.
The Vatican said these new faithful are from Italy, Albania, Ecuador, Indonesia and Peru.
On Sunday, Francis will celebrate Easter Mass in St Peter's Square and give a speech from the basilica balcony.
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