VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis lauded Jesus’ humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby as he celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff Tuesday in St. Peter’s Basilica.
‘‘You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable,’’ Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with faithful.
Francis has dedicated much of his papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children, and of other vulnerable members of society.
He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus’ birth were shepherds, who in society were considered ‘‘among the last, the outcast.’’
Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began Tuesday 2½ hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his new papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus. The occasional wail of babies in the basilica contrasted at times with the sweet voices of the choir.
‘If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.’
The Argentine-born pope has also encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, and he called Jesus ‘‘the light who brightens the darkness.’’
In the world’s history and our own personal history, Francis said, ‘‘there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows.” He added ‘‘if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.’’
On Wednesday, Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his Christmas message, meant for the world, from the basilica’s central balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
Earlier, in the Holy Land, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.
The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.
‘‘The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,’’ said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.
Palestinian dignitaries greeted Twal at the entrance of Bethlehem. His motorcade crawled through the town’s narrow streets as he stopped to shake hands and greet the throngs of visitors. It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to the Church of the Nativity, where thousands of people were gathered ahead of midnight Mass.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, were among the dignitaries expected to attend the service.
Excited tourists milled about the town’s Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed.
Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds of people who greeted Twal’s motorcade.
Green said that being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream come true. ‘‘All the stories that we grew up with. It’s here. It’s part of our life. We heard them in the family, school and church. This is the birthplace,’’ he said.
Green slowly pushed a stroller and his wife held their daughter as they followed a crowd toward the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.