VATICAN CITY—In a busy succession of Christmas events, Pope John Paul II urged the world to let the peace of Christ reign over nations, families, and individual hearts.
“How can we fail to notice the strident contrast between the serenity of the Christmas carols and the many problems of the present hour?” the Pope asked during his Christmas midday address.
Standing on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the only part of the facade not covered by scaffolding, the 78-year-old Pope gave his traditional blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the City and to the world).
Pope John Paul called for an end to the sale and production of weapons and an end to the use of the death penalty.
Several hundred members of an Italian group working against the death penalty around the world had walked through the streets of Rome, arriving in St. Peter's Square in time for Pope John Paul's blessing and speech.
The Pope spoke of “tragic situations” around the world, “which often involve human guilt and even malice, soaked in fratricidal hate and senseless violence.
“May the light coming from Bethlehem save us from the danger of becoming resigned to so tormented and distressing a scenario,” the Pope prayed.
He offered special prayers of encouragement to those working “to bring relief to the tormented situation in the Middle East by respecting international commitments,” most likely a reference meant to include both the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the situation in Iraq.
The Pope also prayed that Christians would help the world come to a consensus on the need “for urgent and adequate measures to halt the production and sale of arms (and) to defend human life.”
A commitment also is needed “to end the death penalty, to free children and adolescents from all forms of exploitation, (and) to restrain the bloodied hand of those responsible for genocide and crimes of war,” the Pope said.
Broadcast by 45 national television networks as well as on international satellite networks, Pope John Paul's Christmas message included greetings in 58 languages.
“May the joy of Christmas and the peace which the birth of the Savior brings into the world be in your hearts forever,” he said in English.
Thousands of visitors gathered around the larger-than-life-sized Nativity scene and the 86-foot-tall Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square for the annual appointment.
The night before, people from around the world crowded into a darkened St. Peter's Basilica awaiting the blaze of lights which would signal the arrival of Pope John Paul and the start of the Christmas midnight Mass.
Christmas night is a night of mystery, the Pope said in his homily.
“Jesus is born into a family poor by material standards, but rich in joy.
“He comes into the world completely helpless without anyone's knowledge, and yet he is welcomed and recognized first by the shepherds, who hear from the angel the news of his birth,” the Pope said.
When the shepherds see the baby lying in a manger, “thanks to the inner light of faith, they recognize the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets,” he said.
They recognize the God who came to fill the world with his grace and transform creation, the Pope said.
“He becomes a man among men, so that in him and through him every human being can be profoundly renewed.”
With the coming of Christ and the gift of eternal life that his birth and death gives to all who believe in him, human history has changed, Pope John Paul said.
The Pope said Christ's transformation of history will be celebrated in a special way at the Christmas midnight Mass in 1999, “when, God willing, I shall inaugurate the great jubilee with the opening of the Holy Door.”
After his long Christmas Eve and Christmas Day ceremonies, the Pope went to his summer villa south of Rome for a few days of rest, although he recited the midday Angelus prayer and greeted visitors at Castel Gandolfo.
Marking the Dec. 26 feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, the Pope prayed the saint's example “would particularly sustain those who, even today because of their faith, are placed under harsh trials, so that their courage in fully adhering to the Lord will never lessen.”
Turning his attention to the family Dec. 27, the feast of the Holy Family, the Pope said the Church itself must learn to be a family modeled after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“The more the Church is able to realize the pact of love which is shown in the Holy Family, the more it will be able to accomplish its mission of being a leaven so that all men and women will be one family” in Christ, the Pope said.
The Holy Family of Nazareth also is a model for every human family, he said.
“The mystery of Nazareth teaches every family to generate and educate their children, cooperating in the marvelous work of the Creator and giving the world a new smile through every child,” he said.
During his Angelus address, Pope John Paul praised a Milan-based program called “Add a Place at the Table” which encourages families to invite someone who is homeless or alone to share their family holiday meals.
The Pope prayed that the initiative would spread and that it would go beyond a one-time experience of warmth by leading to new friendships and solidarity.