Pope delivers emotional Lourdes sermon

In the stifling heat of Lourdes, between long, painful pauses to draw breath and formulate his words, the frail Pope John Paul II yesterday confounded his critics and consolidated an image as an icon of strength.

In the stifling heat of Lourdes, between long, painful pauses to draw breath and formulate his words, the frail Pope John Paul II yesterday confounded his critics and consolidated an image as an icon of strength.

Besides the contents of the 84-year-old Pope's sermon - which called on Christians to defend life "from its conception until its natural end'' - it was his extraordinary physical performance that moved the 200,000 people attending the two-and-a-half-hour long Assumption Day Mass in the Pyrenean shrine.

"Viva Il Papa,'' shouted the crowd to fill the gaps in the Pope's homily and encourage him to persevere each time his vocal chords tightened beyond use from Parkinson's disease.

At one point during the speech he turned to his private secretary, Monsignor Mieczyclaw Mokrzycki, and told him in Polish: "Help me.'' Vatican journalists said this usually meant the Pope wanted the rest of his homily to be read for him. But yesterday the Pope added: "I must finish'', and demanded a drink of water before continuing in the 30-degree heat.

The Pope, who on Saturday - the first of his two days at Lourdes - appeared briefly to lose his balance while kneeling down at Bernadette's cave, made a rare reference to his state of health at the start of the Rosary prayer. "I feel with emotion that I have reached the end of my pilgrimage," he said, and was seen to shed tears.

The Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls talked down the significance of the sentence. "The Pope is showing his emotion over this pilgrimage to Lourdes which he has been looking forward to for a long time.''

But many see the Pope's visit to Lourdes - only his second trip outside Italy this year - as a symbolic farewell on Earth to the Virgin Mary whose hand he believes saved his life when a Turkish would-be assassin shot him in May 1981.

The mountain village became a world famous shrine after a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw apparitions of the Virgin in a cave in 1858. The apparition proclaimed that "I am the immaculate conception'', which was taken by Church authorities to confirm the dogma, pronounced four years earlier, affirming that Mary was immune from all carnal temptation. Within a few years of the Vatican's acknowledgement of Bernadette's visions, pilgrims began to venture to Lourdes and report miraculous cures from the cave water. To date, the Vatican has acknowledged 66 miracle cures. Six million pilgrims - many of them sick - travel to the village every year.

Many of those attending yesterday's outdoor Mass on a lawn in the Sanctuaries area of Lourdes - which includes the cave and three basilicas - were young pilgrims who were often moved to tears by the Pope's performance and told journalists they were inspired by John Paul II's strength. "He is someone who pushes himself to the limit,'' said Guillaume Langlois, a 25-year-old seminarian.

"He inspires young people because he faces up to life as it has been presented to him, and does not give up.''

Yesterday afternoon, after a meeting with French bishops, the Pope returned to Bernadette's cave for a private prayer before leaving for Tarbes airport and his flight to Rome.

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