Pope Celebrates Midnight Mass

Pope John Paul II (search) ushered in Christmas on Friday celebrating Midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, where worshipers prayed for world leaders to strive for peace and for Jews, Muslims and Christians to live harmoniously in the Holy Land.

All through the day, pilgrims descended on St. Peter's Square to admire a 105-foot-tall Christmas tree brought down from the Italian Alps and a life-size Nativity scene unveiled Friday alongside the 100-year-old fir.

Many people waited in line for hours to get into the Mass while Italian police screened pilgrims with metal detectors before letting them into St. Peter's Basilica (search). Police cars ringed the piazza, and officers patrolled the already heavily protected square in a fleet of new mini Lamborghinis resembling golf carts.

A choir sang a Christmas concert in the square after dusk. In the darkness, a single candle representing peace appeared in John Paul's window, casting a soft light over the pope as he gazed onto the square. The pontiff raised the candle to make the sign of the cross, and the crowd burst into applause.

At Mass later, the ailing, 84-year-old pope was guided to the front of the church in his white wheeled throne. Wearing a pale golden robe, he appeared in form and spoke in a clear voice in his opening greeting.

The pope made no specific references to current issues in his homily, but said of Christ: "All humanity, with its burdens of trials and troubles, stands in need of you."

"Stay with us, living bread which came down from heaven for our salvation! Stay with us forever."

The service in the poinsettia-filled basilica also included prayers that world leaders dedicate themselves to peace and that Christians, Muslims and Jews live peacefully together in the Mideast.

"May (the Holy Land) experience times of prosperity and peaceful coexistence, through the mutual respect of its inhabitants," said one of the Mass intentions. "May it be a safe place, and hospitable to pilgrims and truth-seekers."

The holidays are always a trying period for the ailing pontiff, who on Christmas Day planned to read his holiday message and issue greetings in dozens of languages from the basilica balcony.

In a speech during the week, the pope acknowledged the burdens of illness and age. John Paul has Parkinson's disease (search) and crippling knee and hip ailments.

"The passing years make one feel an ever more intense need for help from God, and from people," he said, before handing his speech over to an aide, who read most of the remarks.

Yet the pope has kept to his regular holiday appointments. He is also planning to lead a New Year's Eve prayer service and a Mass for the Church's World Day of Peace on Jan. 1.

The Vatican said the midnight Mass and the Christmas Day message were scheduled to be televised to a record 73 countries.