Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in packed St. Peter’s Basilica

VATICAN CITY (CBS News) Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve Mass in a packed St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, rounding out a year marked by his pleas for the world to better protect innocents caught up in wars, migrations and abject poverty.

As the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Gloria” and the basilica’s bells rang out across Rome, Francis processed to the altar behind cardinals draped in golden vestments for the service celebrating the birth of Jesus.

The late night Mass was the first major event of the Christmas season, followed by Francis’ noon Urbi et Orbi (To the city and the world) blessing on Christmas Day.

Francis has spent much of 2016 bemoaning the Islamic extremist violence that has driven Christians from Mideast communities that date to the time of Christ. He has demanded Europe in particular do more to welcome refugees, saying Jesus himself was a migrant who deserved more than being born in a manger. And he has denounced the wasteful ways of the wealthy when children and the poor die of hunger every day.

Last week, Francis celebrated his 80th birthday by sharing breakfast with eight homeless people before celebrating Mass with cardinals as greetings flowed in from around the world.

The pope chatted individually with each of the homeless guests — four Italians, two Romanians, a Moldovan and a Peruvian — at the Vatican hotel where he resides, and shared Argentinian cakes with them before heading to Mass, the Vatican said.

The guests offered the pope a bouquet of sunflowers. They were invited from among those staying around St. Peter’s Square and at nearby showers for the homeless established by the pope’s almsgiver.

Speaking to the cardinals, Francis contemplated the aging process, telling them, “For some days now, I have had in mind a word that seems ugly: Old age, a thought that frightens.” But then he recalled his words during his first papal greeting in 2013, when he said: “Old age is the thirst for knowledge.”

He added: “I hope it will be the same for me.”

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