Lourdes - perhaps the Pope's final pilgrimage?

16th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

LOURDES, France, Aug 16 (AFP) - Pope John Paul II showed his illness has become a part of his message during a draining pilgrimage to Lourdes, raising more questions over how long he can last, but the extent of his Parkinson's disease did not diminish a strong political content in his speeches.

LOURDES, France, Aug 16 (AFP) - Pope John Paul II showed his illness has become a part of his message during a draining pilgrimage to Lourdes, raising more questions over how long he can last, but the extent of his Parkinson's disease did not diminish a strong political content in his speeches.

In what has now become a standard of the sick 84-year-old pope's public appearances, anxious pilgrims chanted encouragement as he faltered during Sunday's giant open air mass in the French Pyrenees town, almost as if he were a boxer on the canvas with a referee about to count him out.

Despite a stumble on Saturday which had aides bolting forward to steady him as he knelt in prayer at the Grotto of Apparitions, the pope they once called "God's Athlete" stayed on his feet to the bell - the people's undefeated champion.

"The crowd get behind him. And the crowd sometimes seems to spur him on," said Father Liam Griffin, the English language chaplain-coordinator of the Lourdes sanctuary.

"He feels his mission is with the people and to be there for the people, and they respond to that," he added.

"I don't believe the pope is exploiting his illness," Monsignor Jacques Perrier, the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, told AFP.

"He has never been ashamed of his gifts. Today he is not ashamed of his very diminished state.

"It's true that there is an aspect to his illness of bearing witness. He has many ways of being of pope, as theologian, as missionary, as great spiritual figure... but here he was the witness to the dignity of all human life."

The pope himself raised intense discussion over what he might have meant when, as he knelt before the grotto made famous by reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary, he said: "I feel deeply that I have reached the goal of my pilgrimage".

"A lot of people are interpreting that as the pope saying he's coming to the end of his earthly pilgrimage," said Griffin.

Griffin begs to differ, saying the pontiff was completing a religious cycle centred around a prayer to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Nevertheless, some French newspapers on Monday clearly thought it would be the pope's last trip.

The local "Depeche du Midi" headlined with "John Paul II's adieu" while the conservative Catholic daily La Croix noted on its front page that the pope was "at the limit of his strength".

Communist daily l'Humanite headlined with "John Paul II's last pilgrimage".

His frail health strengthened the political message he carried, however.

He delivered a strong pro-life message in his homily Sunday, when he also emphasised the "special role of women in our own time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism".

"The pro-life message has been seen as a challenge to politicians, especially the candidates for the US presidency, to protect life," said Griffin.

There was also a broad political message in the pontiff's response to French President Jacques Chirac's welcoming address on Saturday.

The pope said the Church intended to make a "specific contribution" to society "in which the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can form the basis of social life".

That, said Griffin, "is a reflection on the current situation with the European constitution, and the whole debate about a secular society and the question of veils and religious emblems not being allowed in schools in France".

The French parliament recently passed a law forbidding the wearing of the Muslim veil by girls in state schools. It has long forbidden Christian emblems like the crucifix.

Chirac was also instrumental in thwarting the pope's desire for the EU constitution to include a specific mention of Europe's Christian heritage.

While many of the estimated 300,000 pilgrims at Lourdes believed this was quite possibly the pope's last foreign visit, the Vatican is currently mulling invitations to Istanbul in November and to Ireland next year.

Much will depend on how John Paul II recovers from his latest trip.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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