VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2002 ( Christmas is above all a feast of the family, John Paul II said, as hundreds of children brought figurines of the Baby Jesus to St. Peter's Square for a traditional blessing.

The Pope greeted the children before reciting the Angelus with them and other pilgrims at midday. He thanked the youngsters "because your joy is in harmony with the spirit of joy that characterizes the Third Sunday of Advent."

"I am also thinking of the cribs that you have prepared in your homes and schools together with your parents and teachers," he said. "In the grotto, you will place the Babe you hold in your hands between Our Lady and St. Joseph. So the crib will become the center of schoolrooms and the heart of your families."

He added: "Christmas is above all a celebration of the family, because God, being born in a human family, chose it as the first community consecrated by his love."

The Holy Father noted that the 4th World Meeting of Families will take place in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 22-26.

The first meeting of this type was held in Rome in 1994, the International Year of the Family. Three years later came a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, which gathered more than 1 million people. In 2000, families gathered in Rome for the Jubilee.

"The next appointment will serve to relaunch the Gospel of the family in the third millennium," said the Pope, who will be represented at the event by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

"I thank all those who are working in the preparation of this important meeting in Manila, and I hope that the participation of families will be the largest possible," John Paul II said. "The world is in need of a sign of hope that comes precisely from Christian families."

"May every family nucleus be able to open the doors to the Lord who will come at Christmas to bring joy, peace and love to the world," the Holy Father concluded.