Pope Benedict XVI ushered in Easter services late Saturday with a dramatic, candlelit vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, saying Christ's resurrection was "the most crucial leap" in the history of mankind.

The bells of St. Peter's tolled across Rome as midnight approached to herald in Easter, when the faithful celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion on Good Friday.

This year, Easter Sunday also coincides with Benedict's 79th birthday.

At the start of Saturday night's lengthy vigil, Benedict entered the darkened basilica in silence, holding in front of him a single white candle. Its flame was then shared with others until slowly the whole basilica began to twinkle with candles held by the thousands of faithful gathered for the chant-filled service.

During his homily, a tired-looking Benedict said some people wrongly believe that the miracle of Jesus' resurrection did not concern ordinary men.

"If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation,' absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history," he said in response.

Benedict had just a few hours to rest before he celebrates Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square on Sunday.

After the Mass, he will move to the central balcony of the basilica to deliver the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech — Latin for "to the city and to the world" — and give a blessing and greetings.

Benedict led a Good Friday Way of the Cross evening procession at Rome's Colosseum in which he denounced "threats" to the institution of the family and lamented the divide between the world's rich and poor.

The busy Holy Week ceremonies were Benedict's first since being elected pope a few weeks after Easter in 2005. After they end, he planned to take a few days rest at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome.

Last year, the ailing John Paul was forced to sit out Easter ceremonies for the first time in his papacy, which began in 1978. John Paul tried to speak but failed from his window overlooking the square on Easter, 2005. In one of his last public gestures, he blessed the faithful with his hand but was unable to utter a word.