Lourdes pilgrims hail miracle pope John Paul

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Thousands of Catholics thronged the French shrine town of Lourdes Sunday to mark the beatification of John Paul II, the late pope hailed as a miracle healer who visited its curative holy spring.

Crowds applauded as they watched large screens showing a broadcast from the Vatican of the beatification service for the Polish pontiff, who like the Virgin Mary has been recognised as a miracle-worker.

"He followed a path of self-purification which was quite remarkable," the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Jacques Perrier, told AFP.

"He followed a long path during his life on earth and I believe today is a fitting tribute."

Mary is said to have performed miracles here in the 19th century when she appeared to Saint Bernadette in a cave in this southwestern town. It is now a pilgrimage site for millions of Christians.

The church has justified beatifying the late pope -- a step towards full sainthood -- after a 50-year-old French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, said she was miraculously cured of Parkinson's disease by praying to him.

The managers of the sanctuary said the crowds thronging Lourdes numbered 20,000. Some watched the service on screens in the underground chapel adjoining the caves where Bernadette saw her visions.

"I came with my whole family to watch John Paul II's beatification ceremony live," one man told AFP. "It's a great feast for all Catholics."

Many of them had booked their visits to Lourdes before the date of the beatification had been announced and were pleasantly surprised to be at the sacred site on the day of the ceremony.

"It is by the grace of the Virgin that I am here to experience this," said Jeanine Ernault, a pilgrim from the northern French town of Lille, hailing the "extraordinary" pope, whose "greatness was in coming in reach of the poorest."

Among other pilgrims on Sunday was a delegation from the Catholic charity the Order of Malta and 50 people who had hiked 150 kilometres (more than 90 miles) from northern Italy.

John Paul II came to Lourdes in 1983 and in 2004, months before his death -- his last pilgrimage outside Italy.

"I was here when he came in 2004 so it reminds me a lot of those beautiful memories," one young man told AFP. "I am really happy to be here for this occasion."

The cave was the spot where Mary is said to have declared to Bernadette the "immaculate" nature of her virgin conception of Jesus Christ, a key doctrine of the Catholic faith.

John Paul himself called the sacred water welling from Bernadette's cave "a spring where the conscience becomes clear", where "closeness to Mary builds up the soul".

Lourdes also honoured him with a series of processions and conferences on Saturday and produced a commemorative medal of his beatification and his two Lourdes pilgrimages.

Two plaques bearing his name were unveiled on the route leading to the sanctuary.

Simon-Pierre's recovery -- after the pope's death -- was acknowledged as a miracle of John Paul II after years of research by the Vatican. John Paul II himself was suffering from Parkinson's when he died on April 2, 2005.

A second proven miracle is now required for him to be declared a saint, and the Vatican is already sifting through hundreds of reported miracles.

© 2011 AFP

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