Pope prays for Middle East peace
Pope Benedict XVI marked Christmas Eve with Mass in St Peter's Basilica and a pressing question: Will people find room in their hectic, technology-driven lives for children, the poor and God?
The pontiff also prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom, and asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
The ceremony began at 10pm local time with the blare of trumpets, meant to symbolise Christian joy over the news of Christ's birth in Bethlehem. As midnight neared, church bells tolled throughout Rome, while inside the basilica, the sweet voices of the Vatican's boys' choir resounded joyously.
Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican traditionally began at midnight, but the start time was moved up years ago so as to give the 85-year-old pontiff more time to rest before his Christmas Day speech. That address is to be delivered at midday from the basilica's central balcony.
A smiling Benedict, dressed in gold-coloured vestments, waved to photo-snapping pilgrims and applauding church-goers as he glided up the centre aisle toward the ornate main altar of the cavernous basilica on a wheeled platform guided by white-gloved aides. The platform saves him energy.
In his homily, Benedict cited the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph finding no room at an inn and ending up in a stable which sheltered the baby Jesus. He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.
The pope said: "The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent," Benedict lamented.
The pope worried that "we are so 'full' of ourselves that there is no room left for God". He added "that means there is no room for others either - for children, for the poor, for the stranger".
With his voice a bit hoarse, and looking somewhat tired as the two-hour ceremony neared its end, Benedict decried that history has suffered through "misuse of religion", when belief in one God became a pretext for intolerance and violence. Still, he insisted that where God is "forgotten or even denied, there is no peace either".
"Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom," the pope said.