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Pope Celebrates Mass with Thousands of Pilgrims at Lourdes - 2004-08-15

A frail Pope John Paul on Sunday celebrated an open-air Mass in Lourdes, in southwest France, at one of the Roman Catholic Church's most sacred shrines. Thousands of pilgrims, including many sick, were in attendance.

Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, many in wheelchairs, cheered as the pope arrived in his "pope-mobile" on a very hot mid-August day. It was the pope's second pilgrimage to Lourdes during his long papacy.

John Paul, appearing tired and ailing, struggled through his homily. At one point he said "help me" in Polish to his aides. He drank some water, then said, "I have to finish," and continued reading in French.

The crowd applauded, to encourage the 84-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease.

In his homily, he said women had a mission to put more meaning back into a world blighted by materialism and secularism. He called on them to reject abortion, saying that life must "be respected from conception to its natural end." He also condemned euthanasia.

Sunday's Mass was the highlight of the pope's two-day visit to Lourdes, where it is claimed St. Bernadette had visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto in 1858.

Six-million people, many of them very ill, visit the shrine every year. Many come to seek healing, others to look for inner peace.

Vatican officials have denied that the pope came to the shrine to seek physical healing. They say his intention was "to demonstrate his faith in God and his devotion to Mary."

The pope's first day in Lourdes, Saturday, ended with a candlelit procession of thousands of pilgrims, who wound their way up a hill to the huge basilica that dominates the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

After an afternoon rest, the pope was to say one last prayer to the Madonna and return to Rome early Sunday evening.