VATICAN CITY — Blending family-style informality with the pomp of ancient public ceremony, Pope John Paul II celebrated Christmas with a call for people everywhere to overcome "the heavy dullness of their egoisms" in search of spiritual fulfillment.
Tens of thousands of overcoated Romans and pilgrims eddied around the giant Austrian Christmas tree and the bigger-than-life Italian Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square to hear John Paul's 10th annual message to the City and the World--"Urbi et Orbi."
The message and subsequent papal blessing, broadcast to the United States and 46 other countries, came with full pageantry from the bedecked central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica where popes are proclaimed.
As he did in his homily at a midnight Mass attended by dignitaries and the diplomatic corps, the Pope focused on the need for spiritual rebirth in the Christmas Day message.
Preaching from the Gospel of St. John, the Pope asked rhetorically whether the world's people could "transcend the limits of their finiteness, the heavy dullness of their egoism," to enter what he called "the marvelous reality of the life of God."
"The question has been asked for every generation in history," the Pope said. "But it returns with particular intensity in this, our time, in the technological age, because never as much as today has man been tempted to believe that he is self-sufficient, capable of building with his own hands his own salvation."
Friday's ceremonies climaxed the busiest and most solemn time of the year for the Pope. In recent weeks, he has approved a forthcoming encyclical on social justice and penned his spidery signature to the Christmas card sent in his name to well-wishers. This year's card features the Magi worshiping the Christ Child in a scene from a 15th-Century painting of the Florentine School.
While preparing his Christmas sermons, John Paul has juggled a combination of church business and ceremony, receiving prelates and pilgrims in private meetings and public audiences. At his last audience on Wednesday, he shook hands with a Lutheran Lapp from Finland who plays Santa Claus year-round and came dressed in his best red suit.
The Pope's private Christmas was in marked contrast to the public spectacle flashed around the world in back-to-back Masses at midnight and 10 a.m. and the annual message.
In keeping with Polish tradition, John Paul celebrated his Christmas feast in his papal apartment. When the first star appeared on Christmas Eve, he broke a holy wafer, the oplatek, to welcome it.
The menu was meatless: beet-root soup, fish and dumplings stuffed with cabbage. The guests were few: the Polish nuns who prepare the Pope's meals and his two secretaries, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, a Pole, and Msgr. Emery Kabongo, an African.
Banter and jokes accompany such occasions, according to a Vatican spokesman, but this year's Christmas feast may have been a bittersweet one for John Paul.
On Jan. 6 he will consecrate Kabongo, his aide for more than five years, and dispatch him as bishop of an outback diocese in his native Zaire.
Today, John Paul begins a weekend walking-and-reading vacation in the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban hills south of Rome.