Rome Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that joy, and not a costly present, is the true gift of Christmas as he made his first visit as pontiff to a Rome parish.
"You should bring joy, not expensive gifts that cost time and money," Benedict said in a homily which he delivered without notes for about 15 minutes in a sometimes hoarse voice.
He also proposed joy as an antidote to the ills of society.
"In today's world, God is absent," Benedict said. "People need anesthesia to live. They live in a dark world."
Benedict said joy liberates people.
"With a smile, an act of kindness, a little help, forgiveness, you can bring joy, and that joy will come back to you," the pope said.
Benedict was keeping up a tradition cherished by his predecessor, John Paul II, who devoted many Sunday mornings to visiting Rome's parishes from the affluent historic center of the city to lower-class neighborhoods on the outskirts.
For his first visit, Benedict chose Santa Maria Consolatrice, a church in a working-class neighborhood near the outskirts. The church had been his titular church as cardinal from 1977 to 1993. He told the parishioners he was happy to return to their church.
Before heading back to the Vatican in an open-top car, he put on a long white coat to guard against the chill and stood on the steps of the church, where he wished the several thousand people outside "many, many wishes for a Christmas and a happy New Year."
The atmosphere was warm as Benedict shook the hands of many parishioners, but less informal than John Paul's visits to churches in line with a pontiff's role as Bishop of Rome.
John Paul, who died in April, made it to 301 out of Rome's 334 parishes, often lingering to banter with children. When his health deteriorated toward the end of his papacy and the Sunday morning outings became too strenuous for him, John Paul started greeting parish groups at the Vatican.