VATICAN CITY — A frail Pope John Paul II in his Christmas message asked Christ to save the world from war and terrorism — “the great evils” afflicting mankind at the start of the third millennium.
John Paul delivered his traditional Christmas Day blessing, known as his “Urbi et Orbi” message — Latin for “to the city and to the world” — just hours after celebrating a lengthy Midnight Mass inside the poinsettia-decked St. Peter’s Basilica.
While he cut back on his holiday schedule this year, the pope delivered both his homily and his Thursday message in a clear and strong voice. Though tired, he appeared far stronger than during the series of celebrations marking his 25th anniversary as pope in October, during which he turned over many of his remarks to others to read.
The 83-year-old pope suffers from Parkinson’s disease, as well as hip and knee ailments that make it practically impossible for him to walk or stand. He also has difficulty speaking, yet he delivered his remarks in their entirety and also offered his traditional Christmas Day greetings in some 62 languages, including Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Maori and Swahili.
John Paul offered his noontime prayers from the stairs overlooking St. Peter’s Square, blessing thousands of the faithful and tourists who gathered under a brilliant and around a life-sized nativity scene and 100-foot Christmas tree.
Waving flags and handkerchiefs, they cheered and screamed when he was wheeled out in his chair, dressed in golden vestments and a jeweled golden miter, and interrupted him several times during his greetings with cheers and song. Some had tears in their eyes.
In his comments, John Paul recalled that Christmas Day marks the biblical birth in Bethlehem of Jesus Christ, to whom he directed his appeal to save the world from “the great evils” afflicting mankind at the start of the third millennium.
“Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from the many forms of violence which assail the weak and the vulnerable,” he said.
“Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary.”
He said it was particularly urgent to follow such paths to peace in the Middle East.
John Paul has spoken out frequently during the past three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, calling for leaders on both sides to have the courage to find peace. He has also frequently denounced terrorism and lamented the war in Iraq.
During his Midnight Mass homily, the pope said: “Too much blood is still being shed on earth. Too much violence and too many conflicts trouble the peaceful coexistence of nations.”
“You come to bring us peace,” John Paul said of the baby Jesus. “You are our peace.”
The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, headlined its holiday edition: “Christmas 2003, a cry for peace.”
Tight security at the Vatican
Security around the Vatican was particularly tight this year, amid reports that churches could become terrorist targets. Clusters of police lined the main boulevard leading to St. Peter’s on Thursday morning, and the faithful attending Midnight Mass had to pass through metal detectors.
The boulevard itself has been closed to traffic overnight during the holidays as part of Italy’s stepped-up security measures.
Following Thursday’s events, John Paul is scheduled to lead New Year’s Eve prayers Dec. 31 in St. Peter’s and preside at Mass in the basilica New Year’s Day.
The Vatican, however, has dropped two traditional papal events at the start of the new year — the ordination of bishops Jan. 6 and baptisms on Jan. 11 — to ease up on John Paul’s schedule.
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