Benedict XVI ushered in his first Christmas as pope yesterday, calling on men and women across the globe to open their hearts to Christ as a way to combat poverty, war, and the sterility of a world obsessed with technological advance. Clad in glowing golden vestments and a pointed gold miter, Benedict stood on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to offer a Christmas blessing to tens of thousands of rain-soaked pilgrims and tourists. It was the same spot from which he was presented to the world minutes after his election as pope in April.
After presiding over a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Benedict delivered yesterday's noontime Christmas Day salutation, the traditional ''Urbi et Orbi" message, Latin for ''to the city and to the world."
Together, these are the most important events for the pope at this holiday. Benedict used the two appearances to carry on several customs enshrined by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2 after nearly 27 years in power. But he also sounded the themes that have become the hallmark of his 8-month-old papacy, advocating a more activist Catholicism and a revival of core Christian values.
Addressing an enormous Christmas Day crowd, which filled St. Peter's Square despite the cold and rain, Benedict urged Christian unity as a way to seize upon the ''life-giving power of the Child of Bethlehem" to create a ''new world order" that can rectify ethical and economic injustices.
''A united humanity will be able to confront the many troubling problems of the present time," the pope said, ''from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live, from the proliferation of weapons to the pandemics and the environmental destruction which threatens the future of our planet."
Benedict signaled the important role that faith must play in interpreting science, saying that technology alone will not allow mankind to understand the world. Men and women who give too much emphasis to technological advances risk ''ending up in spiritual barrenness and emptiness of heart," he said.
''The modern age is often seen as an awakening of reason from its slumbers, humanity's enlightenment after an age of darkness," he said. ''Yet without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world."
Under umbrellas, the crowds cheered Benedict wildly. A group of English-speaking young people screamed, ''We love you pope, we love you!" over and over again. For the holiday, St. Peter's Square is dominated by a 90-foot Austrian fir Christmas tree and a huge Nativity scene.
As John Paul did before him, Benedict used the Urbi et Orbi message to briefly survey the crises of the world.
He singled out areas where he said Christians are being persecuted, such as Lebanon and Darfur, scene of ''fratricidal conflicts" and ''humanitarian tragedies," and made a special appeal for peace in Iraq and the Middle East, where ''signs of hope, which are not lacking, need to be confirmed by actions inspired by fairness and wisdom."
He urged the people of Latin America to ''live in peace and harmony" and encouraged further dialogue on the Korean peninsula to settle ''dangerous disputes." Benedict concluded with Christmas greetings in at least 32 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Albanian, and Maltese. The biggest applause seemed to come for the greetings in Spanish.
At the Christmas Eve Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict highlighted the Roman Catholic Church's adamant opposition to abortion, saying that the ''splendor" of God's love shines on every child, ''even on those still unborn." He went on to exhort Catholics to serve as ''active heralds" to bring peace and the word of God into the troubled regions of the world, reports Boston Globe. I.L.