Ailing pope visits shrine at Lourdes

Vatican denies he sought cure at French grotto known as site of healing


LOURDES, France - As Pope John Paul II visited here yesterday, he counted himself as one of the thousands of ailing Roman Catholics who come to this pilgrimage town in the Pyrenees foothills every year to pray to a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the Vatican denied that he came seeking a cure.

"I am here with you, dear brothers and sisters," the pope said in a message that was read for him by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of France. "With you I share a time of life marked by physical suffering."

In 1858, Marie Bernarde Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl, claimed she had visions of the Virgin Mary in a small grotto in this southwestern French town. Although church authorities were initially skeptical, she was canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933, and millions of Catholics, many of them suffering from illnesses, have made pilgrimages to Lourdes, believing the waters of the grotto to be blessed with healing powers.

While the church has recognized 66 miracles and thousands of cures, the Vatican made it clear that the pope was not seeking a cure for his own health problems, which include Parkinson's disease and arthritis.

"The Holy Father is not going to Lourdes because he is sick," Bishop Renato Boccardo, an aide to the pope, told the Catholic News Service last month. "I can exclude that the pope is going to ask for healing."

Although the pope took some sips of water from the "Grotto of Apparitions" yesterday, it appeared to have more to do with custom than hopes for cures, and seemed an expression of empathy for the thousands who came to greet him, many of them sitting in wheelchairs or leaning on canes.

But during his prayer at the grotto, the 84-year-old pope lost his balance and nearly fell before a bishop came to his aid. Once seated on his wheeled throne, he designated Etchegaray to read his speech.

The pope was scheduled to return to the grotto yesterday evening for a torchlight procession and was to lead a Mass today that was expected to draw 300,000. He began his 32-hour trip yesterday morning with a meeting in nearby Tarbes with President Jacques Chirac of France.

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