papa franjo.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

Pope Francis issued Thursday a strong condemnation of modern society's vices as he urged the faithful to "act soberly" and show compassion in a Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica.

Thousands of people attended the service, one of the grandest in Catholic Church liturgy. The 79-year-old Francis, who said he was suffering from the flu at the start of the week, sounded slightly hoarse and did not appear to have fully recovered.

"In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, [Jesus] calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential," he said in his homily.

Criticizing "a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin," and "a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless," Francis said "our lifestyle should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy."

Following tradition, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics entered St Peter's at around 9.30 pm (2030 GMT) holding a ferula - a silver papal stick with a cross - and preceded by a procession of cardinals and other top prelates. The service was expected to last two hours.

He lifted a cloth covering a baby Jesus in a symbolic celebration of his birth, and children from Belgium, Italy, Kenya, the Central African Republic, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, United States and Mexico laid flowers by the shrine holding the statue.

The pontiff, who was on Wednesday named as the winner of the 2016 Charlemagne Prize for acting as Europe's "voice of conscience," stressed God's loving nature in a Twitter message hours before the mass.

"God is in love with us. He becomes small to help us love him in return," it said.

Christmas celebrations fall in the middle of the Jubilee of Mercy, a months-long festival Francis inaugurated on December 8 and running through to November 20, which offers Catholics a chance to seek a general pardon for their sins.

They also come amid renewed scrutiny of Francis' reform efforts following VatiLeaks 2 revelations of Vatican financial scandals, simmering Catholic conservative discontent with the pope and heightened security in response to terrorist threats.

Celebrations were due to continue Friday with the traditional Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) message and blessings, which the pope delivers from the central balcony of the Vatican basilica.

Latest news

Danish premier and opposition leader reject EU referendum

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and the leader of the main opposition Social Democrats both reject staging a referendum on the country's membership of the European Union as suggested by eurosceptics.

French PM slams "irresponsible" Fillon over "near-civil war" comment

French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve hit back Monday at conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon, accusing him of being "irresponsible" for saying the race was taking place in a climate of "near-civil war."

Serbia opens two more policy areas in its EU accession talks

Serbia on Monday opened two new policy areas in its EU entry talks, thus bringing the number of opened policy areas to eight.

EC: Economic sentiment for Croatia deteriorates in February

The Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI), a composite indicator made up of five sectoral confidence indicators, deteriorated for Croatia in February with the subdued confidence of companies from the services and retail sectors having a higher weight than improving consumers' confidence, according to a report released by the European Commission on Monday.

Frankfurt, London exchange operators' stock fall on merger doubts

Shares in the operators of the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and the Deutsche Boerse fell sharply on Monday after the LSE threw fresh doubts on their planned 29-billion-euro (30.1-billion-dollar) merger to forge Europe's biggest exchange.

ICJ asks Bosnia's leadership to state its position on review request

The State Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina will have to make a clear statement as to whether it supports the request for a review of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) genocide ruling against Serbia, the Croat member of the country's three-member presidency, Dragan Covic, said on Monday.

White Helmets, grateful for Oscar nod, hope for peace in Syria

Members of the Syria Civil Defence group, a neutral team of some 3,000 volunteers providing aid to Syria's rebel-held areas, expressed joy on Monday that a film documenting their work won an Oscar for best short documentary.

Arson attack at French cultural institute in Athens

Unknown assailants have carried out an arson attack on the French cultural institute in Athens, the fire brigade and police reported on Monday.

INA Group posts core business profit of HRK 607 mn

The INA oil and gas group made positive results in 2016, with profit from operations reaching HRK 607 million, compared to a HRK 1.34 billion loss for 2015, the Zagreb-headquartered group stated in a consolidated financial report issued on Monday.

Report: Former Croatian football star Cvetkovic found dead

The former Yugolsavia international and Bundesliga defender Zvezdan Cvetkovic has died, the Croatian state broadcaster HRT reported Monday.

Youth who posted anti-Serb stickers in Vukovar placed in custody

Following a police investigation, a 19-year-old youth from the eastern town of Vukovar, suspected of posting anti-Serb stickers on bus stops along the town's Trpinjska Street, has been placed in custody on the suspicion of inciting violence and hatred, the county police department said on Monday.

US strongly condemns neo-Nazi march in Zagreb

The US Embassy in Zagreb on Monday strongly condemned neo-Nazi and pro-Ustasha views expressed during a demonstration by several dozen people, organised by the non-parliamentary far-right Autochthonous Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP) in Zagreb on Sunday.