VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 80th birthday a day early with a Mass in his honor Sunday on the flower-bedecked steps of St. Peter's Square, giving thanks for his long life and the support of the Church.
Cardinals, priests and tens of thousands of faithful joined the pope in prayers of thanks to God for his long life, as well as for his election as pontiff on April 19, 2005.
Benedict was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, a riverside town in the Bavaria region of Germany, and sprinkled among the crowd in the square were fellow countrymen and women in traditional dress, including feather-trimmed hats and men in shorts. Pilgrims waved German flags when the pope greeted them in their native language.
The Vatican had invited faithful to join the pope in what Benedict called a reflection of his "not brief" life.
Benedict expressed gratitude to those who came, and said he was extending "my most sincere thanks, from the depth of my heart, to the entire Church, which, like a true family, especially in these days, surrounds me with its affection."
The pope seemed invigorated by the cheering crowd and after the service clapped his hands as he was driven through the square in a white-upholstered open-topped vehicle.
Benedict appears to carry his years well. He walks briskly, stands through long public ceremonies, and his first book written as pontiff goes on sale Monday in bookstores.
His stamina seems to be surviving his rigorous, packed schedules. On Wednesday, he will receive the new U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, at the Vatican, and at the weekend he will make an overnight pilgrimage to northern Italy. In early May, he will travel to Brazil, where the traditionally strong Catholic Church is losing some faithful to Protestant evangelical churches.
Since becoming pope two years ago, Benedict has devoted much of his energy to improving relations with other religions as well as among Christians, and in tribute to his efforts, Ecumenical Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians — sent a personal representative to the Mass — Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon. The pontiff said he hoped that theological dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholics would continue "with renewed vigor."
Benedict and a long line of red-hatted cardinals wore gold-colored vestments over white robes.
Yellow and white are the official Vatican colors, and the rows of yellow pansies were lined up in perfect order across the steps.
The pope smiled as he gazed across the sea of faithful gathered under brilliant sunshine in the square. He caressed a baby brought to him by parents bearing gifts for the altar, and chatted briefly with them.
Referring to the Easter celebrations a week ago, Benedict said it was a "significant coincidence for me. I can look back on 80 years of life."
As Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope spent most of his earlier years studying and teaching theology in Germany and later trying to ensure that Catholics kept to doctrinal correctness in two decades as a top aide to Pope John Paul II.
Referring to his 2005 election as John Paul's successor, Benedict said in his homily: "With the growing weight of responsibility, the Lord brought me new help in my life."
He said that knowing that many pray for him gives him joy, and he expressed gratitude to those who put up with his shortcomings.
In Berlin, Catholics celebrated the birthday with a Mass at St. Hedwig's Cathedral. Cologne Archbishop Joachim Meisner called Benedict a "Mozart among theologians."
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended the service in Berlin, congratulated Benedict.
A bishop from the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising and a group of German pilgrims left Munich by train on Saturday, with their baggage containing 80 bottles of beer that was brewed especially for the pope's birthday at the Weihenstephan Brewery in Bavaria. The dark beer and 80 special beer steins are a birthday gift for Benedict.