Image: Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead Christmas Mass in St. Peter's Basilica
Max Rossi  /  Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead the Christmas Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
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updated 12/24/2011 6:26:15 PM ET 2011-12-24T23:26:15

Pope Benedict XVI decried the increasing commercialization of Christmas as he celebrated Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday night, urging the faithful to look beyond the holiday's "superficial glitter" to discover its true meaning.

Benedict presided over the service in a packed St. Peter's Basilica, kicking off an intense two weeks of Christmas-related public appearances that will test the 84-year-old pontiff's stamina amid signs that fatigue is starting to slow him down.

The Christmas Eve Mass was moved up to 10 p.m. from midnight several years ago to spare the pope a late night that is followed by an important Christmas Day speech. In a new concession this year, Benedict processed down the basilica's central aisle on a moving platform to spare him the long walk.

Benedict appeared tired by the end of the Mass and a dry cough interrupted his homily.

In his homily, Benedict lamented that Christmas has become an increasingly commercial celebration that obscures the simplicity of the message of Christ's birth.

"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," he said.

It was the second time in as many days that Benedict has pointed to the need to rediscover faith to confront the problems facing the world today. In his end-of-year meeting with Vatican officials on Thursday, Benedict said Europe's financial crisis was largely "based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent."

Benedict officially kicked off Christmas a few hours before the evening Mass, lighting a candle in his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square in a sign of peace, as crowds gathered to witness the unveiling of the Vatican's larger-than-life sized nativity scene.

Story: Thousands pack Bethlehem for Christmas

Security was tight for the evening Mass, as it has been in recent years. There was no word of any repeat of the 2008 and 2009 Christmas Eve security breaches, in which a woman with a history of psychiatric problems and wearing a telltale red sweat shirt jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica's central aisle and lunged for the pope.

In 2008, the pope's security detail blocked her from getting to Benedict. But in 2009, she managed to grab Benedict's vestments and pulled him to the ground. The pope was unhurt and continued along with the service, but a French cardinal who was nearby fell and broke his hip.

On Sunday, Benedict will deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech, Latin for "to the city and the world," from the central loggia of St. Peter's overlooking the piazza. Usually, the speech is a survey of sorts of the hardships and wars confronting humanity. He's also due to deliver Christmas greetings in dozens of languages.

Next weekend, he'll preside over a New Year's Eve vespers service, followed by a New Year's Day Mass. A few days later he'll celebrate Epiphany Mass followed by his traditional baptizing of babies in the Vatican's frescoed Sistine Chapel.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Christmas Eve around the world

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  1. Don Ward, dressed as Santa Claus, drives down Colley Avenue in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, Dec. 24, in his 1958 Corvette. Ward says that for the past 16 or 17 years he has spent all of Christmas Eve day driving around the neighborhoods of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, waving to people. (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Iraqi Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at a Chaldean Catholic church in Amman.Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighboring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beachgoer poses with a lifeguard in front of a Christmas tree at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, on Sunday, Christmas Day. (Rob Griffith / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Children sing Christmas songs for customers at a shopping center on Christmas Eve in Beijing, China. Though Christmas is not officially celebrated in China, the holiday is becoming increasingly popular as Chinese adopt more Western ideas and festivals. (Feng Li / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Visitors to New York's Herald Square are seen reflected in the Macy's Christmas windows on Dec. 24. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Fans dressed as Santa Claus cheer during the Christmas Eve game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Jared Wickerham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People crowd a square near a shopping district for the Christmas Eve celebration in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Choir boys sing during a Christmas Eve choral service at St Paul's Cathedral in London. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pope Benedict XVI lights a candle in his private window at the end of the unveiling ceremony of the crib in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Dec. 24. Benedict will celebrate Christmas Mass at St. Peter's Basilica to mark the nativity of Jesus Christ. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Faithful gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after the unveiling of the nativity scene Dec. 24. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Iraqi Christians gather around a fire as they celebrate Christmas in a church in Hamdaniya town, east of Mosul, Iraq, Dec. 24. (Stringer/iraq / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Iraqi Christians attend Mass at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Christian Church in Baghdad on Dec. 24. Iraq's Christians, markedly fewer in number following attacks on their minority community, are increasingly fearful in the face of a rise in sectarian tensions after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. (Sabah Arar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Indonesian Christians hold candles during a Christmas Eve Mass at the Bethany Church in Surabaya city, in East Java province, Dec. 24. (Juni Kriswanto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pakistani Christians look at decorations during Christmas celebrations in Islamabad Dec. 24. Pakistan deployed snipers and hundreds of extra police at churches this Christmas to prevent possible attacks on the Christian minority. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Christian visitors gather inside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas Eve in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (Fadi Arouri / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Two Palestinian Muslim women pose for a snapshot in front of a nativity scene inside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24. (Bernat Armangue / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Dec. 24. (Oliver Weiken / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Artists dressed in Santa Claus costumes stand near a sand sculpture of Santa Claus they created as part of Christmas celebrations on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Dec. 24. (Stringer/india / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A group of girls enjoy Christmas Eve on an illuminated street in Kolkata, India, Dec. 24. Christmas Day is observed as a national holiday in India. (Bikas Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Indonesian Christians hold candles as they pray on Christmas Eve at the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, Dec. 24. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Aboriginal members of Broome's community open presents at One Mile Community on Dec. 24, in Broome, Australia. The Broome Police & Community Centers organize a present drop each year to bring festive spirit to the indigenous residents of Broome. (Ingetje Tadros / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Two Pakistani girls stand in front of a wall decorated with paintings for the Christmas holiday in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan, Dec. 24. (Nathalie Bardou / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A Syrian Greek Orthodox nun prays at the Virgin Mary monastery in Sidnaia, north of Damascus, on Dec. 23. Nine months of unrest in Syria have stripped Christian neighborhoods of any sign of Christmas joy. Syrian Christians have decided to cancel celebrations and observe only Christmas Mass. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. People dressed up as Father Frost (the equivalent of Santa Claus), Snow Maiden and other costumes from old tales march in central Minsk, Belarus, in celebration of Christmas on Dec. 24. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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