Frail Pope completes gruelling visit to Lourdes

16th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

LOURDES, France, Aug 15 (AFP) - Pope John Paul II delivered a strong pro-life message during open air mass on Sunday at the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, the highlight of a two-day visit which again saw his failing health betray him.

LOURDES, France, Aug 15 (AFP) - Pope John Paul II delivered a strong pro-life message during open air mass on Sunday at the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, the highlight of a two-day visit which again saw his failing health betray him.  

The 84-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church cut passages from a prepared homily, yet struggled through a still-lengthy address in midday temperatures which reached 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).  

"Help me," he whispered in Polish during the homily as he gestured to an aide, Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, for a glass of water. "I must continue."  

The multi-national crowd erupted into applause, many moved to tears at the frail pope's refusal to yield to the pain of his Parkinson's disease, which had been all too evident during this 104th foreign visit of his pontificate.  

The pope delivered a strong message against abortion and euthanasia, making a special appeal to women on the feast of the Virgin Mary.  

"To you women, falls the task of being sentinels of the invisible," he told the congregation estimated by the French bishops' conference at 300,000.  

Cries of "Viva Il Papa" (Long Live the Pope) rang out in support of John Paul during mass to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, when Catholics believe the Virgin Mary was taken up into heaven at the end of her earthly life.  

"I urgently appeal to all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to do everything in your power to ensure that life, each and every life, will be respected from conception to its natural end."  

"Life is a sacred gift, and no one can presume to be its master," he cautioned.  

In the afternoon, the pope was wheeled to the Grotto of Apparitions to pray in silence, watched by tens of thousands of pilgrims from the other side of the river Gave which runs through the sanctuary.  

It was a powerful moment for John Paul II, who has a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, whom he has credited with saving his life in a failed assassination attempt in 1981.   

For several minutes, he gazed in silence at the statue of Mary in a two-metre high hollow, the exact spot where the Virgin is reputed to have appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Cardinals and priests stood a respectful distance away.  

The pope then flew out from the regional airport at nearby Tarbes aboard an Alitalia plane, for the two-hour flight back to Rome.  

Earlier, during the mass in the "Prairie" or meadow of the Lourdes sanctuary, John Paul II said the grotto held a special significance for women.  

"Appearing here, Mary entrusted her message to a young girl, as if to emphasize the special mission of women in our time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism," he said.   

The pope concelebrated the mass with hundreds of Catholic hierarchy, including 15 cardinals, 96 bishops and 1,200 priests on a giant altar at one end of the meadow.   French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin also attended the ceremony on behalf of his government.  

The pope arrived on his popemobile from a nearby residence for sick pilgrims, where he stayed overnight in an apartment, and was greeted by wild whoops of joy by pilgrims as he passed through the waiting crowd.  

Pilgrims, who had been waiting several hours, cried "Papa, Papa" as he passed by, a stooped figure inside the glass of his special vehicle. He acknowledged them with an arm raised in blessing.  

Confined to a wheelchair, like many pilgrims here, he has displayed worrying signs of his poor health since his arrival on Saturday. He tired quickly and at one stage alarmed aides when he stumbled while kneeling at the grotto.  

Many pilgrims have expressed fears that this may well be the pope's last foreign visit.   "I hope he can come to Ireland next year, but he's very frail, God bless him," said Teresa Hanamy from County Offaly, in Ireland.  

The pope has been invited to attend an Orthodox Church celebration in Istanbul in November, and to Ireland next year. The Vatican, holding to its usual caution, has not confirmed any further foreign travel for the pope.  

Normally, with his faltering health in mind, it leaves any confirmation of foreign visits until just a few weeks before the scheduled event.

 

© AFP

Subject: French news

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