- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II ushered in the Christmas holiday, lighting a candle for peace in his window yesterday before celebrating midnight Mass in a new test of the 84-year-old pontiff’s frail health.

All through the day, pilgrims descended on St. Peter’s Square, admiring the 100-year-old Christmas tree and a new fleet of Italian police minicars deployed in the latest security measure in the already heavily protected piazza.

The 105-foot tree from the Italian Alps stands next to a large Nativity scene that was set up Christmas Eve.

In time for the holiday, the Italian Interior Ministry put into service 8-foot-long Lamborghini cars resembling golf carts. The electric cars will make patrolling the square “more efficient and quicker. It can be a good deterrent,” said police Inspector Salvatore Festa.

Italian police provide security for the Vatican, including putting pilgrims through metal detectors before they can enter St. Peter’s Basilica.

A choir sang a Christmas concert in the square after dusk. In the darkness, a single candle appeared in John Paul’s window, casting a soft light over the pope as he gazed onto the square. The pontiff raised the candle to make the sign of the cross, and the crowd burst into applause.

The pope, who was a staunch opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said in a recent peace message that “violence is an unacceptable evil that never solves problems.”

The pope made no specific references to current issues in his midnight Mass homily, but said of Christ: “All humanity, with its burdens of trials and troubles, stands in need of you.

“Stay with us, living bread which came down from heaven for our salvation. Stay with us forever.”

The service also included prayers that world leaders dedicate themselves to peace and that Christians, Muslims and Jews achieve a peaceful coexistence in the Holy Land.

The holidays are always a trying period for the ailing pontiff, who on Christmas Day will read his holiday message and issue greetings in dozens of languages from the basilica balcony.

In a speech during the week, the pope acknowledged the burdens of illness and age. John Paul has Parkinson’s disease and crippling knee and hip ailments.

“The passing years make one feel an ever more intense need for help from God, and from people,” he said, before handing his speech over to an aide, who read most of the remarks.

Yet the pope has kept to his regular holiday appointments. He is also planning to lead a New Year’s Eve prayer service and a Mass for the Church’s World Day of Peace on Jan. 1.

The Vatican said the midnight Mass and the Christmas Day message were scheduled to be televised to a record 73 countries.

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