VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI carried a tall, lit candle symbolizing Christian hope into a dramatically darkened St. Peter’s Basilica packed with faithful Saturday night in the traditional start of the Vatican’s vigil Mass on the eve of Easter.

A chant of “Lumen Christi” (Latin for “Light of Christ”) echoed in the cavernous basilica.

Then the vast space began twinkling with light as cardinals and other prelates lit their candles from the flame on the pope’s Easter candle and, one by one, members of the congregation lit their neighbor’s candle in a quick succession of lights.

A light switch was thrown, and the Mass began, led by Benedict, dressed in gold-and-white colored vestments.

Easter Sunday is Christianity’s most important feast day, when faithful mark their belief in the resurrection of Christ after Jesus’ death by crucifixion. For Christians worldwide, Easter represents God’s promise of eternal life after death, of love’s triumph over death.

“The gravitational pull of love is stronger than that of hatred; the force of gravity of life is stronger than that of death,” Benedict said in his homily reflecting on the mystery of Christian belief in the resurrection.

A motif of life overcoming difficult trials figured in Benedict’s Good Friday homily, as he sought to encourage survivors of Italy’s devastating quake to cling to hope and take solace in Easter’s joy. The temblor in the central Apennine mountain region of Abruzzo claimed at least 293 lives and left 40,000 people homeless.

The endurance of the Catholic church itself through the ages was praised by Benedict in his vigil Mass homily, saying “it always seems as if she ought to be sinking, and yet she is already always saved.”

The pope did not specify challenges facing the church he leads.

But recent months have seen Benedict criticized, including by prelates in his own church, over his efforts to reach out to excommunicated ultraconservative Catholic bishops who rejected modernizing reforms of the 1960s, including the move away from Latin to modern languages during Masses.

Keeping with Easter vigil traditions, Benedict baptized five adults during the Mass: two Italian men, and one woman each from Italy, China and the United States.

Using a shell-shaped silver scooper to take water from a basin, the pope poured water over the bowed heads of each of the members of the church, after he called them by name, one by one.

Before moving up the aisle of the vast basilica, Benedict took a knife and carved the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega” into the candle. Then he inserted five grains of incense into the wax.

On Sunday morning, Benedict will celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Square, then read his Easter message for the world at noon (1000 GMT).

The “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) message often takes the form of a review of the world’s hotspots and political and social tensions.

Some 2 1/2 hours into Saturday night’s ceremony, the pope started sounding hoarse. But the stamina of Benedict, who turns 82 on April 16, has appeared to hold up well during Holy Week ceremonies, including a Way of the Cross procession he watched on Good Friday night from a terrace overlooking the Colosseum.

AP-ES-04-11-09 1812EDT

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