Pope celebrates Christmas Eve Mass
Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated Christmas Eve Mass, kicking off a busy two weeks of public appearances that will test his stamina.
Wearing cream and gold coloured vestments, Benedict processed into St Peter's Basilica standing on a moving platform - a new concession to spare the 84-year-old pontiff the fatigue of having to walk up and down the long centre aisle.
Hours before the evening Mass began, Benedict lit a candle in his studio window overlooking St Peter's Square in a traditional sign of peace. A few hundred people had gathered in the square to watch the candle lighting and the unveiling of the Vatican's larger-than-life nativity scene.
The Christmas Eve Mass was moved up to 10pm from midnight several years ago to spare the Pope a late night that is followed by the important Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" speech, Latin for "to the city and the world". The speech, delivered from the central loggia of St Peter's overlooking the piazza, is usually a survey of sorts of the hardships and wars confronting the globe. At the end of it, Benedict is also due to deliver Christmas greetings in dozens of languages.
Next weekend, he will preside over a New Year's Eve vespers service, followed by a New Year's Day Mass. A few days later he will celebrate Epiphany Mass followed by his traditional baptising of babies in the Vatican's frescoed Sistine Chapel.
Benedict decried the commercialisation of Christmas and urged the faithful to look beyond the holiday's "superficial glitter" to discover its true meaning.
In his homily, Benedict lamented that Christmas' commercialisation obscures the simplicity of the message of Christ's birth.
He said: "Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem."
Meanwhile, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales offered prayers for people in Bethlehem at risk of losing their homes.
During his Midnight Mass sermon, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols spoke of 50 families in the West Bank whom he said could lose their land to Israel. Addressing the congregation at Westminster Cathedral, Archbishop Nichols urged people to "see more clearly all those things which disfigure our world", adding: "We too live 'in a land of deep shadow'."