By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published January 1, 2004
At his annual midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica early on Dec. 25, the pope lamented that “too much blood is still being shed” across the globe.
In a Christmas Day blessing some 12 hours later, he invoked Christ’s help in overcoming wars and “the scourge of terrorism” at the start of the third millennium.
The 83-year-old pontiff looked alert and spoke in a relatively strong voice during the Christmas ceremonies, which were attended by thousands of people in Rome and broadcast to millions of others in some 50 countries.
The Vatican’s Internet office opened a Christmas page on the Vatican Web site, www.vatican.va, making it possible for computer users to watch midnight Mass live or e-mail the pope a Christmas greeting at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite reported terrorist alarms in Rome, the papal events went off without a hitch under somewhat tighter security.
The pope began his Christmas Eve celebrations by lighting a candle of peace at his apartment window, as the Vatican’s own giant Nativity scene was unveiled in St. Peter’s Square below.
Shortly before midnight, the pope was wheeled in a mobile throne down the main aisle of the basilica, past the camera flashes and outstretched hands of pilgrims. Seated in front of an altar decked with dozens of red poinsettias, he delivered his sermon in its entirety.
“Too much blood is still being shed on the earth. Too much violence and too many conflicts trouble the peaceful coexistence of nations,” the pope said.
But the birth of Christ brings encouragement to all, he said.
“You rekindle our hope. You fill us with ecstatic wonder. You assure us of the triumph of love over hatred, of life over death,” he said.
Prayers were later offered in Arabic for an end to “sentiments and works of hatred, revenge and abuse” among all those who recognize Abraham as their father—Christians, Muslims and Jews.
During the offertory procession, the pope beamed when 12 children walked up to him two-by-two. He traced a blessing on their foreheads.
The pope was back in the spotlight at noon, when he delivered his traditional blessing “urbi et orbi”—“to the city and to the world”—from the basilica steps overlooking a packed St. Peter’s Square.
Once again, he contrasted the sense of wonder and peace inspired by the birth of Jesus with the “great evils which rend humanity” at the start of the third millennium.
“Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste to whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from the many forms of violence which assail the weak and the vulnerable,” the pope prayed.
“Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary; paths which are always and everywhere urgent, especially in the land where you were born,” he said.
The pope said Christmas has an emotional impact on Christians all over the world.
“A wave of tenderness and hope fills our hearts, together with an overpowering need for closeness and peace,” he said.
But the special meaning of Christmas, the pope said, also extends to others. Through the birth of Jesus, God “entered into the history of each person living on the face of the earth” and is present today “as the one Savior of humanity,” he said.
The pontiff then pronounced Christmas greetings in 62 languages, including Swahili, Russian, Aramaic and Hindi. He said in English: “May the birth of the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the Savior has been born for us.”
On Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the pope delivered a noon blessing from his apartment window as thousands flocked to see the Vatican’s Christmas creche and the 100-foot Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square.
The pope said he wanted to remember in a special way the Christian communities and individuals who suffer persecution for their faith.
“May the Lord give them the strength of perseverance and the capacity to love even those who are making them suffer,” he said.
On Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Family, the pope again greeted pilgrims from his apartment window and said the modern family was threatened by “a misunderstood sense of rights.”
“There is a need at every level to join forces among those who believe in the importance of the family based on marriage. This is a human and divine reality that should be defended and promoted as a fundamental good of society,” he said.
The pope also prayed for earthquake victims in southern Iran, and asked Catholic aid agencies to help respond to the humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands were feared dead in the Dec. 26 tremor.
The pope’s declining health forced him to cut back some of his regular Christmas season events, including liturgies in early January to ordain bishops and baptize babies.
But he kept up most of his traditional activities, including a Dec. 22 end-of-the-year meeting with Vatican officials who form the Roman Curia. He told the officials that his 25 years of service as pope and their daily efforts share a single goal: “To proclaim the Gospel of Christ for the salvation of the world.”
Police reported no security incidents during Christmas events at the Vatican. This year, as in several recent years, Italian newspapers were full of speculation about potential terrorist attacks against the Vatican, and Italian police took the unusual step of closing off the main road leading to St. Peter’s Square from midnight to 6 a.m. during the Christmas season.
On Dec. 27, an Italian newspaper quoted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as saying there had been specific information on a possible Christmas Day terrorist attack against the Vatican using a hijacked plane. Berlusconi later denied making the remarks. The Vatican had no comment on the report.