VATICAN CITY, NOV. 25, 2003 ( John Paul II will preside over the principal Christmas liturgical celebrations in St. Peter's Basilica this year, although the agenda will be lighter than in previous years.

The Pope will preside at the Midnight Mass on Dec. 24 and will deliver his Christmas message to the world at midday Dec. 25 from the central balcony of the basilica's facade, the Vatican press office said today.

Television channels worldwide will transmit the event, which ends with the blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world).

On Dec. 31 at 6 p.m. the Pontiff will preside over vespers. On Jan. 1, World Day of Peace, John Paul II will preside at the Mass in the basilica to celebrate the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

The papal Christmas agenda does not include the ordination of bishops in the Vatican basilica on Jan. 6, as in previous years.

Vatican sources told ZENIT that the reduced agenda is to avoid long public events that would further tax the Holy Father's frail health.

The statement did confirm, however, that the Pope will make his traditional visit to Piazza di Spagna in Rome on Dec. 8, to honor the Blessed Virgin on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

On Dec. 11 in the afternoon, the Holy Father will preside at the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for students attending pontifical universities in Rome.