VATICAN CITY, JAN. 1, 2003 ( John Paul II appealed for prayers so that "peaceful means" and respect for international law may bring an end to conflicts and tensions, especially in the Middle East.

On the first day of 2003, the Pope's appeal resounded in St. Peter's Basilica, during the homily of the Mass for the World Day of Peace, which on this occasion he dedicated to mark the 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII's encyclical "Pacem in Terris."

"Before the conflicts of today and the threatening tensions of the moment, once again I invite all to pray so that peaceful means of agreement will be sought inspired in a will of loyal and constructive understanding, in harmony with the principles of international law," the Holy Father said.

The Pope's words served as a commentary to the Gospel of the liturgy, which described the shepherds of Bethlehem.

The geographic reference led him to exclaim: "Holy Land! The dramatic and lasting tension in which this region of the Middle East finds itself makes more urgent the search for a positive solution to the fratricidal and senseless conflict, which has bloodied it for too long."

The Pontiff was heard by pilgrims who filled the Vatican basilica, among whom were representatives of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, composed of 176 countries. The Mass, presided over by John Paul II, was celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

"Despite serious and repeated attacks against the serene and shared coexistence of peoples, peace is possible and is a duty," the Pope stressed. "What is more, peace is the most precious good that must be invoked of God and be constructed with every effort, through concrete gestures on the part of every man and woman of good will."

The Holy Father returned to the theme after the Mass, when he greeted some 20,000 pilgrims who gathered in St. Peter's Square before the midday Angelus.

"Concrete gestures of peace are needed in families, in places of work, in communities, and in the totality of civil life, in national and international social gatherings. Above all, we must never cease praying for peace," the Pontiff said.

Both during the Mass and the Angelus, the Holy Father entrusted this petition to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, in the Year of the Rosary, "a prayer that by its nature is oriented to peace."