Pope Benedict ends visit to France

 Following a final Mass yesterday with sick people in Lourdes, Pope Benedict travelled to the airport of Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrenees yeswhere the departure ceremony took place.

The Holy Father was greeted by Francois Fillon, prime minister of France. Also present were the political and civil authorities, bishops from the Mini-Pyrenees region, and the president, vice-president and secretary general of the Conference of Bishops of France.

Benedict XVI thanked the authorities, bishops, law enforcement officials, "and all the countless volunteers who have offered their time and expertise. Everyone has worked devotedly and whole-heartedly for the successful outcome of my four days in your country. Thank you very much".

"My journey", he added, "has been like a diptych, the first panel of which was Paris, a city that I know well and the scene for several important meetings. I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in the prestigious setting of the Esplanade des Invalides. There I met a vibrant people, proud of their firm faith; I came to encourage them to persevere courageously in living out the teaching of Christ and His Church".

The Pope also recalled how he had prayed Vespers with priests and religious, and with seminarians whom he had sought to affirm "in their vocation in the service of God and neighbour".

"And how can I fail to recall here the prestigious encounter with the world of culture at the Institut de France and the College des Bernardins? As you know, I consider culture and its proponents to be the privileged vehicles of dialogue between faith and reason, between God and man".

The Holy Father identified the "second panel of the diptych" as Lourdes, an "emblematic place which attracts and fascinates every believer, ... like a light in the darkness of our groping to reach God. Mary opened there a gate towards a hereafter which challenges and charms us".

"The Pope", he said, "was duty bound to come to Lourdes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. Before the Grotto of Massabielle, I prayed for all of you. I prayed for the Church. I prayed for France and for the world".

Like any other pilgrim, the Holy Father explained, "I completed all four stages of the Jubilee Way, visiting the parish church, the Cachot and the Grotto, and finally the chapel of the hospital. I also prayed with and for the sick who come here to seek physical relief and spiritual hope. God does not forget them, and neither does the Church. Like every faithful pilgrim, I wanted to take part in the torchlight procession and the Blessed Sacrament procession. They carry aloft to God our prayers and our praise".

Benedict XVI also recalled how he had shared with French bishops "my conviction that the times are favourable for a return to God".

"May God bless France!" he cried. "May harmony and human progress reign on her soil, and may the Church be the leaven in the dough that indicates with wisdom and without fear, according to her specific duty, who God is!"

After expressing his desire to return to France, the Holy Father concluded: "From Rome I shall remain close to you, and when I pray before the replica of the Lourdes Grotto which has been in the Vatican Gardens for a little over a century, I shall think of you".

The papal flight took off at 13.30 and is due to arrive at Rome's Ciampino airport at around 15.30. From there the Holy Father will travel to his residence at Castelgandolfo.

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