In a Christmas Eve message of peace, Pope John Paul II lit a candle outside his darkened window and celebrated a Mass that offered prayers for calm and prosperity in the Holy Land
On Christmas Day, he plans to read his holiday message and issue greetings in dozens of languages from the balcony at St. Peter's Basilica.
The busy Christmas holidays can be trying for the ailing 84-year-old pontiff, but he seemed animated Friday as celebrations opened. During midnight Mass at St. Peter's, he beamed as he blessed small children who carried gifts up to the altar.
In recent years, the pope has sometimes used his midnight Mass message to lament bloodshed and war. This time, he illustrated his brief homily with the image of baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.
Without mentioning any specific conflicts or current problems, the pope made a general appeal for Christ's help.
"All humanity, with its burdens of trials and troubles, stands in need of you," he said, speaking clearly from his white wheeled throne.
The service in the poinsettia-filled basilica also included prayers that world leaders dedicate themselves to peace and that Christians, Muslims and Jews achieve a peaceful coexistence in the Holy Land.
"May (the Holy Land) experience times of prosperity and peaceful coexistence, through the mutual respect of its inhabitants," said one of the Mass intentions, read in German. "May it be a safe place and hospitable to pilgrims and truth-seekers."
Earlier in the evening, the pope lit a candle for peace in his window overlooking St. Peter's Square. The pope, barely visible in the light of the solitary flickering flame, made the sign of the cross to bless the crowd below.
All day, pilgrims filled the square, admiring the 105-foot Christmas tree brought down from the Italian Alps. Alongside the 100-year-old fir stood a life-size Nativity scene that was unveiled Friday.
Many people waited in line for hours and had to pass through metal detectors to get into St. Peter's Basilica for midnight Mass. Police cars ringed the heavily protected piazza, and officers patrolled the square in a new fleet of 8-foot-long Lamborghini cars resembling golf carts.
The pope has kept to his regular holiday appointments this year despite his ailments. He plans to lead a New Year's Eve prayer service and a Mass for the Church's World Day of Peace on Jan. 1.