Michel Euler  /  AP
Pope John Paul II is cheered by pilgrims as he arrives for an open-air mass in Lourdes, France, on Sunday.
updated 8/15/2004 7:54:37 AM ET 2004-08-15T11:54:37

A frail Pope John Paul II, breathing heavily and gasping at times, celebrated an open-air Mass on Sunday for several hundred thousand pilgrims, many in wheelchairs, at a shrine to the Virgin Mary that is associated with miraculous cures.

At one point he said "help me" in Polish while struggling through his homily in French. Aides brought him a glass of water, and he said he wanted to complete his remarks.

He did, although skipping several sections, and raised his voice to express "special affection" for the sick.

The crowd applauded at times to encourage him. The 84-year-old pope has Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments.

He also drew cheers for his message — condemnations of materialism and secularism, and a call for women to reject abortion, saying that life must "be respected from conception to its natural end."

The Mass was a highlight of the Pope's two-day visit to Lourdes, a town in the Pyrenees where Roman Catholic tradition says St. Bernadette saw visions of Mary in a grotto in 1858.

Pool  /  Getty Images
Pilgrims carry a statue of the Virgin Mary in a candlelit procession in Lourdes, France, on Saturday night.
Many ailing pilgrims awaited Mass in blue rickshaw-like wheelchairs, covered by blankets in the early-morning chill. Youths sat on the grass in the field overlooking the grotto, while others read prayer books.

Earlier, the crowd applauded as the pope was guided to the red-carpeted altar in his white wheeled throne. His voice was strong as he read the opening prayer.

Officials said they expected 300,000 people, and the figure appeared on mark as worshippers jammed into the field to await the pope.

"My prayer has been answered," said Valerie Angus, 56, a retired school teacher on a pilgrimage to Lourdes from Malaysia.

"It is impossible for an ordinary Catholic to meet the pope, but we came face-to-face with him last night."

The Lourdes shrine — a craggy indentation in a cliff where Roman Catholics pray and light candles — has special meaning for the sick. Thousands of people have claimed to be healed by an underground spring here, and the church has recognized 66 of the claims as miracles.

A day earlier, the 84-year-old pontiff prayed at the grotto, assuring other ailing Roman Catholics that he shared in their physical suffering.

"With you I share a time of life marked by physical suffering, yet not for that reason any less fruitful in God's wondrous plan," John Paul said Saturday in remarks read for him by a French cardinal.

The Vatican says that the pope is not in Lourdes to seek a cure for his Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip problems.

The pope is generally moved around on a wheeled throne, but at the shrine he was hoisted onto a kneeler, where he prayed before the ivy-covered grotto. After a less than a minute he slipped, and aides immediately steadied him and lifted him back into his chair.

At dusk Saturday, the pope watched a procession of white-clad pilgrims holding candles before retiring to a care center for ailing Roman Catholics.

The pope's trip commemorates the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that says Mary was born without original sin.

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