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.
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 Basilica, 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 32m Christmas tree brought down from the Italian Alps. Alongside the 100-year-old fir stood a life-size Nativity scene that was unveiled Friday.