Pope John Paul II offered Christmas wishes Saturday for a world where he said timid but hopeful efforts at peace co-exist with worries over over Iraq, the Holy Land and several tragic conflicts in Africa.
Challenging his frail health, the 84-year-old pontiff turned out in the chilly, steady drizzle of Rome to keep his traditional appointment of reading holiday greetings in dozens of languages to a crowd of thousands of Romans and tourists in St. Peter’s Square.
Children screamed in delight and adults cheered and hoisted their umbrellas in greeting as the pope, in gold-colored robes, was driven into the square in his white popemobile, whose top was covered with see-through plastic to protect him from the rain.
John Paul delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) message from a chair under a canopy atop the central steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Babe of Bethlehem, Prophet of peace, encourage attempts to promote dialogue and reconciliation, sustain the efforts to build peace, which hesitantly, yet not without hope, are being made to bring about a more tranquil present and future for so many of our brothers and sisters of the world,” John Paul said, slowly pronouncing each word and often pausing to catch his breath.
“I think of Africa, of the tragedy of Darfur in Sudan, of the Ivory Coast and of the Great Lakes Region,” John Paul said of those conflict areas.
“With great apprehension I follow the situation in Iraq. And how can I fail to look with anxious concern, but also with invincible confidence, toward that Land of which you are a son?” the pontiff said in reference to the Holy Land.
John Paul’s one-page message this Christmas was far shorter than the several pages of the early years of his papacy, when he was strong and healthy. Now, Parkinson’s disease makes it very difficult for him to speak in public. Still, he read every word, and then almost immediately launched into his crowd-pleasing reading of holiday greetings in 62 languages.
John Paul took deep breaths before each new language and seemed pleased with himself that he made it to the end. Languages ranged from the European ones, including Slavic tongues, which the Polish pontiff knows well, to the languages of Africa and Asia.
The Vatican said arrangements had been made with 72 countries to transmit the pope’s message on TV, among them many countries with large Muslim populations, including Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia and Jordan. Many Latin American countries as well as Israel were on the list.
With a life-size nativity scene in the square, John Paul laced his message with images of Baby Jesus.
“Before the crib where you lie helpless, let there be an end to the spread of violence in its many forms, the source of untold suffering,” John Paul prayed. “Let there be an end to the numerous situations of unrest which risk degenerating into open conflict,” the pontiff said, without being specific.
He called for “firm will to seek peaceful solutions, respectful of the legitimate aspirations of individuals and peoples,” and said peace is needed everywhere.