Solidarity with the sick was one of the main themes of Pope John Paul's pilgrimage to Lourdes over the weekend, for the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. President Chirac and his wife Bernadette welcomed the Pope to Tarbres airport on Saturday. In his address the Pope said: "I cannot fail to mention the great saints who came from this land, the outstanding masters of Christian thought, the schools of spirituality and the many missionaries who left their homeland in order to carry throughout the world the message of Christ the Lord." The two leaders then held a brief private meeting at the airport before the papal motorcade drove to Lourdes, where thousands of pilgrims, many in wheelchairs and stretchers were waiting to greet him. Although he was too unwell to speak, later at the Grotto, the following message from the Holy Father was read out: "Dear brothers and sisters who are sick, how I would like to embrace each and every one of you with affection, to tell you how close I am to you and how much I support you. 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,"" The 84-year-old pontiff, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, said that he "wanted to be close to the millions of pilgrims who visit Lourdes each year" and that his visit to the shrine had inspired "great emotion". Yesterday the Pope celebrated Mass in the open air in the meadow opposite the grotto attended by more than 200,000 people. Speaking in sweltering temperatures over 30 degrees centigrade, the Pope made a strong appeal against abortion and euthanasia in his homily. Saying that women had a mission to put more meaning back into a world blighted by materialism, he said: "this grotto also issues a special call to women. Appearing here, Mary entrusted her message to a young girl, as if to emphasise the special mission of women in our own time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism." He said their mission was "to be in today's society a witness of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart". As he faltered through his sermon there were many cheers of "Viva Il Papa" from the crowds. Towards the end of Mass the Holy Father had to stop to ask an aide for water, saying quietly in Polish "Help me", then insisting: "I have to finish". Many were moved to tears by the sight of the frail Pope. "I'm not here looking for a miracle," Christopher Weeratunde, a 66-year-old Briton, who had been wheeled to the Mass by Martin Casey, a 34-year-old Irish volunteer. He told Reuters: "I'm here to share my faith and my suffering with the Pope. My whole purpose today is to be near him. This is the greatest day of my life." After resting yesterday afternoon, the Pope made a final visit to the grotto for ten minutes of silent prayer before flying back to Rome in the early evening.
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