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Pope urges pilgrims to remain hopeful

Image: Pope Benedict XVI prays inside the Grotto of the Apparitions in Lourdes
Pope Benedict XVI prays inside the Grotto of the Apparitions, also called Grotto of Massabielle on Saturday in the Sanctuary of Lourdes. Regis Duvignau / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pope Benedict, on a pilgrimage to the shrine where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl 150 years ago, told a crowd on Sunday that love can be stronger than all the evil in the world.

The 81-year-old Benedict said a Mass for more than 150,000 people on a field in the shadow of the sanctuary built over the spot of the apparitions in 1858.

Pilgrims flocked here from dozens of countries for the pope's three-day visit, his 10th abroad and his first to France. Many were in wheelchairs or stretchers and helped by volunteers.

When he arrived on Saturday night, Benedict prayed in the grotto where Bernadette Soubirous said the Madonna appeared and spoke to her 18 times and he drank water from a spring that believers say has healing powers.

In the past 150 years, the Church has recognized as "miracles" more than 65 medically inexplicable healings of sick pilgrims who visited Lourdes.

Benedict, saying Mass from under white canopies shaped like sails, told his listeners to be true to their faith because "it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins."

Wearing red, white and gold vestments, he told a crowd wrapped in jackets against an unusually cold late summer day that "the power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us."

"This is an incredible experience for our group, especially for the sick ones," said Sean Luddock, a volunteer who helped lead a pilgrimage of several hundred people from Ireland.

"We come here in the same period every year and this year it just happened to coincide with the pope's visit. What a treat!" he said.

Pope's pep talks
Since his arrival in France on Friday, the pope has been effectively giving the country's Catholics a series of pep talks, urging them not to be afraid to live their faith in public.

He has been encouraging them to speak out confidently in a country where "laicite," the separation of church and state that often relegates faith to the private sphere, is part of the national psyche.

Religion has re-emerged as a factor in public life, especially because of the growth of Islam, and French Catholics have increasingly spoken out on social issues.

The once powerful French church struggles with a shortage of priests and fewer than 10 percent of French Catholics attend Sunday mass.

In his homily at Lourdes, the pope told his listeners to reject the concept that praying is "wasting time" and made a particular appeal to young people not to be afraid to answer God's call for them to enter the religious life as priests or nuns.

At the end of a candlelight procession late on Friday night, Benedict asked the world not to forget the victims of terrorism and hatred.

"We think of innocent victims who suffer from violence, war, terrorism and famine; those who bear the consequences of injustices, scourges and disasters, hatred and oppression; of attacks on their human dignity and fundamental rights, on their freedom to act and think," he said.

The pope spoke two days after the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the United States.

Lourdes was the last foreign destination visited by Pope John Paul II before his death in 2005.