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 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 and 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 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."
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 increased security measures.
John Paul is scheduled to lead New Year's Eve prayers Wednesday 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.
Pope John Paul II's Christmas address
Here is the Vatican's English translation of John Paul's Urbi et Orbi remarks, with the Vatican's punctuation and spelling. The pope delivered the remarks in Italian:
1. Descendit de caelis Salvator mundi. Gaudeamus!
The Saviour of the world has come down from heaven. Let us rejoice!
This proclamation, filled with deep rejoicing, echoed in the night of Bethlehem.
Today the Church renews it with unchanged joy: the Saviour is born for us!
A wave of tenderness and hope fills our hearts, together with an overpowering need for closeness and peace.
In the crib we contemplate the One who stripped himself of divine glory in order to become poor, driven by love for mankind.
Beside the crib the Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights, reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity.
The crib and the tree: precious symbols, which hand down in time the true meaning of Christmas!
2. In the heavens there echoes the proclamation of the angels:
"To you is born in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11).
By being born in Bethlehem, the Eternal Son of God has entered into the history of each person living on the face of the earth.
He is now present in the world as the one Saviour of humanity.
For this reason we pray to him:
Saviour of the world, save us!
3. Save us from the great evils which rend humanity in these first years 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.
Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary; paths which are always and everywhere urgent, especially in the Land where You were born, the Prince of Peace.
4. And you, Mary, the Virgin of expectation and fulfilment, who hold the secret of Christmas, make us able to recognize in the Child whom you hold in your arms the heralded Saviour, who brings hope and peace to all.
With you we worship him and trustingly say: we need You, Redeemer of man, You who know the hopes and fears of our hearts.
Come and stay with us, Lord!
May the joy of your Nativity reach to the farthest ends of the universe!