The 84-year-old pontiff, slowed by Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems, addressed cardinals from his wheeled throne in a Vatican hall decorated with Christmas garlands. He struggled to catch his breath at several points.
"The passing years make one feel an ever more intense need for help from God, and from people," he said, before handing his speech over to an aide, who read most of the remarks.
Despite the pope's ailments, he is keeping to his usual challenging holiday schedule. He is scheduled to celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter's Basilica and a few hours later pronounce his Christmas message and deliver holiday greetings in dozens of languages.
Several times this year, his hectic schedule has clearly been a strain. During a pilgrimage to a shrine in Lourdes, France, at the height of August's heat, the pope alarmed observers when he slipped off a kneeler and had to be quickly helped into a chair.
The visit left some wondering whether John Paul - once a sportsman fond of skiing and hiking - could still travel. Days later, he surprised observers by scheduling a trip to a shrine in Loreto, Italy. In the new year, he is expected in Germany for the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day in August and to possibly visit his Polish homeland in June.
Though John Paul seems to have good days and bad days, he has appeared in relatively good form recently during his weekly addresses from a window overlooking St. Peter's Square. On Tuesday, he smiled and chatted with cardinals who lined up to kiss his papal ring after the Christmas greeting.
The speech was an overview of the Church's work during a busy year that brought John Paul's 26th anniversary as pontiff.
The pope highlighted efforts to promote unity between the various branches of Christianity, especially his attempts to break down barriers with the Orthodox Church. This year, the Vatican returned a Russian icon revered by the country's Orthodox community, then sent back the relics of two Orthodox saints taken from Constantinople.
John Paul said he hopes such gestures would bring Christian denominations closer together.
"It is urgent to re-establish full communion between Christians," he said.
By Angela Doland