VATICAN CITY — 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 10 p.m. local time Monday with the blare of trumpets, meant to symbolize Christian joy over the news of Christ's birth in Bethlehem. The basilica's main bell tolled outside, and the sweet voices of the Vatican's boys' choir wafted across the packed venue.
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 Tuesday from the basilica's central balcony.
A smiling Benedict, dressed in gold-colored vestments, waved to photo-snapping pilgrims and applauding church-goers as he glided up the center 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 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 pope said.
"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, 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.
Benedict also mentioned his hope for progress in Syria, which is mired in civil war, as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
Reflecting the Vatican's concern about the exodus of many fearful Christians from the Muslim-dominated Middle East, Benedict expressed hope that "Christians in those lands where our faith was born maybe be able to continue living there" and that Christians and Muslims "build up their countries side by side in God's peace."
Hours before the basilica Mass, Benedict lit a Christmas peace candle on the windowsill of his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.