VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Easter vigil mass in St Peter's Basilica, calling the Resurrection of Christ the "most crucial leap into a totally new dimension."
In a liturgy filled with the symbolism of Christ's passage from the dead to the living, he told thousands of pilgrims in the vast sanctuary and millions watching around the world: "The resurrection was like an explosion of light."
The pope, wearing gold and white vestments, had borne a paschal candle through the darkened basilica, which was bathed in bright light when he reached the altar, and the pilgrims lit each other's candles to symbolize the light of Christ replacing the darkness of sin and death.
In his homily, the pope, in his first Easter season since succeeding Pope John Paul II last year, referred to the theory of evolution to explain Christians' belief in Christ's resurrection and the afterlife.
"If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation,' absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development," he said.
Christ was resurrected because he "was one single reality with the living God, so closely united with him as to form one person with him," Benedict said.
"The resurrection was like an explosion of light, an explosion of love which dissolved the hitherto indissoluble compenetration of 'dying and becoming'," he said.
Benedict's reference to evolution recalled another scientific allusion last August, when he used the phrase "nuclear fission" to describe the spiritual effect of receiving Holy Communion at the Catholic World Youth day festival in Germany.
This year's festivities marking Easter, the most important event in the Christian religious calendar, have inevitably recalled last year's celebrations, which were overshadowed by John Paul II's rapidly deteriorating condition.
Last Holy Saturday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- the future pope -- read out a message from John Paul II to thousands of faithful attending the vigil mass in St Peter's, which the pope followed on television. He died a week later.
It was the first time in the pope's 26-year pontificate that he had to delegate the main Easter ceremonies to his cardinals, participating only through brief video-link appearances or written messages.
On Good Friday, Benedict led Catholics in the traditional torchlit ceremony at Rome's Colosseum, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ.
Thousands of pilgrims packed the ancient Roman arena watched Pope Benedict as he carried a wooden cross at the first and last of the 14 "stations" which for Christians recall Christ's last journey to his crucifixion.
In the ceremony broadcast by 62 television stations in 42 countries, Benedict said Christians could not remain "neutral" when faced with the evils of the world -- "the suffering of abused and abandoned children," the threat against the traditional family, the "divisions" in the world and gap between rich and poor.
Benedict will turn 79 on Easter Sunday, when he will deliver the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Easter message from the central loggia of St Peter's, where he first appeared as pope following his election on April 19 last year.
In the message will voice fears over Iran's nuclear program, the Italian news agency ANSA reported Saturday.
He will press the international community to negotiate with Tehran to assure peaceful cohabitation in the Middle East, ANSA said in an unsourced report.
ANSA said the pope would also defend Israel's right to live in peace while calling on the international community to help the Palestinian people build their future.
Benedict was also expected to express the hope that Italy will regain its serenity once official results are announced next week from the country's cliffhanger elections, which the opposition coalition led by Romano Prodi won by a whisker.
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