VATICAN CITY — In a Christmas message to the world, Pope John Paul II hailed the Jews on Wednesday night as the people who gave Jesus Christ to all mankind.
His gesture during midnight Mass to the people he has called Christianity's "elder brothers" carried a special resonance: It came the day after a Hanukkah candle was lighted at the Vatican for the first time in history.
"The birth of the Messiah! It is the central event in the history of humanity," John Paul said in his homily. "The whole human race was awaiting it with a vague presentiment; the chosen people awaited with explicit awareness."
The pope has done much to repair the ancient rifts between Roman Catholics and Jews.
Under him, the Vatican and Israel normalized relations in 1993. And this fall, he issued a major statement on anti-Semitism as part of his quest for an accounting of Catholic misdeeds as Christianity's third millennium approaches.
In that statement, the pope said wrong interpretations of the New Testament fostered hostility toward Jews and deadened Christians' responses to their persecution. The statement also stressed Christ's Jewish heritage.
John Paul's Christmas homily echoed those thoughts.
"Israel, the people of God of the Old Covenant, was chosen to bring to the world . . . the Messiah, the savior and redeemer of all humanity," the pontiff said during the midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.
The ceremony kicked off the 77-year-old pope's scaled-down holiday schedule. As he has for the past several years, the pontiff opted not to celebrate Mass today in order to conserve energy for his annual "Urbi et Orbi" ("To the City and the World") Christmas Day message from St. Peter's Square.