VATICAN CITY, Dec. 21 (RNS) Breaking with tradition, Pope John Paul II will celebrate a televised midnight Mass outdoors in St. Peter's Square this year to usher in the ``special Christmas'' that will bring the Roman Catholic Jubilee Year 2000 to a close.

``This year,'' the pope said Wednesday, ``is a special Christmas, the Christmas of 2,000 years of Christ: an important birthday that we have celebrated with the Jubilee Year, meditating on the extraordinary event of the eternal word made man for our salvation.''

Addressing some 20,000 pilgrims attending his weekly general audience, the pontiff said the message of Christmas is ``joy and peace, reconciliation and a spirit of brotherhood.''

``Christmas is an invitation to cooperate with God's plan by committing ourselves more generously to the cause of peace and understanding among peoples,'' John Paul said.

It is traditional for the pope to celebrate midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, which holds about 7,000 people, and Christmas morning Mass in the square where as many as 225,000 can attend.

With tens of thousands of Romans and the last of the more than 24-million Holy Year pilgrims who have come to Rome this year expected to gather in St. Peter's Square on Christmas Eve, the Vatican announced that this year John Paul will celebrate a televised midnight Mass on the broad steps of the basilica.

Despite the debilitating effects of a neurological disease that makes it difficult for him to move and to speak clearly, the 80-year-old pontiff has celebrated Mass in the square almost every Sunday for groups of Holy Year pilgrims ranging from athletes to scientists and politicians. At last the Mass on Sunday, he praised actors and other performers for helping to spread the Gospel.

The Jubilee Holy Year will close on the morning of Epiphany, Jan. 6, when the Holy Door of the basilica will be bricked up until the next Holy Year, scheduled for the year 2025. Epiphany is the church feast commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the world as represented by the three Magi, or Wise Men, from the East.

In keeping with a custom established by the Polish-born pontiff, an 80-foot-tall fir tree, decorated in gold and silver, stands glittering in the center of the cobblestone square, but unlike earlier trees, this one has a 24-hour guard.

Authorities ordered the guard because of the violent clashes that broke out near the Vatican Saturday when right-wing extremist Joerg Haider presented the tree to the pope as a gift from the Austrian province of Carinthia, of which he is governor.

Early on Christmas Eve, Vatican officials will unveil a larger-than-life-size representation of the Nativity scene close by the tree.

For the past few years, the pope has not himself celebrated the Christmas Day Mass, but he continues to deliver his ``Urbi et Orbi'' message to the city of Rome and the world at midday. A free satellite link-up will carry the message to billions of people throughout the world.

On New Year's Eve, John Paul will lead midday prayers and appear again at his study window overlooking St. Peter's Square at midnight to offer his blessing to the city and the world. On New Year's Day, he will celebrate a Mass in the square, marking the church's 34th World Day of Peace, dedicated this year to ``Dialogue Between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace.''

After the closing of the Holy Door on Jan. 6, the pope will lead an outdoor ``Te Deum'' Mass of thanksgiving for the conclusion of Holy Year.

The Vatican's Christmas season ends a week later (Jan. 13) when John Paul will deliver his annual address on the state of the world at a reception for ambassadors from the more than 100 countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

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