VATICAN CITY - Stressing the universal joy of Christmas, Pope John Paul II reached out to nonbelievers during a midnight Mass that began a scaled-down holiday schedule for the pontiff.
The 76-year-old pope, under doctors' orders to slow down, canceled plans to celebrate Christmas Day Mass in St. Peter's Basilica so he could get more rest before his annual message to the world.
In his homily at the midnight service in the flower-filled basilica, the pope spoke of the "profound source of Christmas joy."
"We pray today for everyone, Christians and non-Christians, believers and nonbelievers alike," the pope said.
"I send everyone a cordial greeting and I pray that this source of joy issuing forth in human history with the birth of the son of God will be plentiful for all, so that each person may draw from it and quench his thirst," he added.
The pontiff also mentioned the humble surroundings depicted in the biblical story of Jesus' birth in a manger and how word of the event was spread by an angel.
"The angel says: Be not afraid, rejoice!" the pope told worshipers. "The birth of a human being is always a source of great rejoicing."Arrangements were made to broadcast the Mass on television and radio to more than 52 countries around the world.
By not celebrating the Christmas Day Mass in the basilica, the pontiff will have several hours more rest before his annual "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and the World) message from St. Peter's Square.
Last year, the ailing pope missed the Christmas Day Mass and cut short the holiday message because of a wave of fever and nausea.
The problems were later blamed on an inflamed appendix, which was removed in October. But doctors have advised the pontiff to reduce his schedule and avoid becoming fatigued.
In St. Peter's Square, a 90-foot Christmas tree stood behind a Nativity scene with life-size figures. John Paul began the tradition of erecting the tree after he became pope in 1978.