LOURDES, France – A sick man among the sick, Pope John Paul II (search) struggled through Sunday Mass at a French shrine that draws desperate people seeking miracle cures. The 84-year-old pontiff gasped, trembled and asked aides for help during the 21/2 hour service in sizzling heat.
More than 300,000 pilgrims packed a field overlooking the Lourdes (search) grotto in the southwestern Pyrenees, where an illiterate peasant girl, St. Bernadette, said she had visions of a white-clad Virgin Mary in 1858.
Many pilgrims to Lourdes are sick, handicapped or aged. In blue wheelchairs lined up on the grass, they watched as the frail pope spoke from his wheeled throne, which was perched on a red-carpeted stage and shaded by a white tent.
The pontiff -- who suffers from Parkinson's disease (search) and crippling hip and knee problems -- greeted the sick with "special affection."
The pope delivered his opening prayers clearly and with strength, but the homily in French left him trembling and gasping for air. At one point he paused to say, "Help me," in his native Polish.
Aides brought John Paul a glass of water, and he said he wanted to continue. Though he skipped several paragraphs, he was able to deliver a final, forceful point: a condemnation of abortion, cloning and euthanasia.
"I appeal urgently to all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to do everything in your power to ensure that life, each and every life, will be respected from conception to its natural end," he said. The pope also spoke out against materialism and secularism.
The pope also spoke out against materialism and secularism. He singled out women, asking them to be witnesses "of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart." The message was in line with a recent Vatican document accusing feminism of blurring the distinctions between men and women.
John Paul drew cheers for his appeals -- and for simply making it through his sentences. Each time he paused, applause of encouragement burst from the crowd.
"Whenever he says something with a lot of meaning, he seems to gain energy," said Vincent Barresi, a 55-year-old Frenchman who watched from a wheelchair. "Given his health, this is a sacrifice for him. He has a rare kind of courage."
Pilgrims came from all over the world, with many camping out for hours Sunday to see him. Young people sat on the grass and chatted, while others read prayer books.
The Mass marked the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that says Mary was born without original sin.
It was a highlight of the Pope's visit to Lourdes, whose cool underground spring is believed by many Roman Catholics to have curative powers.
At taps on the ivy-covered cliff, people drink, splash water on their faces and fill up huge plastic jugs to take home. The ailing also bathe in a spring-water pool.
Most pilgrims come to Lourdes seeking hope and inner peace, but some pray for miracles. Thousands of people have claimed to have been healed, and the church has recognized 66 cures as miracles -- a meticulous process judged by doctors and a bishop.
The Vatican says John Paul is not here to seek cures for his Parkinson's and other ailments. But in light of his illness, the trip took on special meaning.
The pontiff spent the night at a care center for ailing pilgrims. A day earlier, he assured other sick Roman Catholics that he shared in their physical suffering. It was a rare reference to his own illnesses.
John Paul also prayed twice at Lourdes' grotto, a craggy, ivy-covered indentation in the side of a cliff. On Saturday, he was hoisted onto a kneeler to pray at the shrine, but he slipped after less than a minute. Aides immediately steadied him and lifted him back into his chair.
On Sunday, he did not attempt to kneel. Aides wheeled him up to the grotto, then stepped away as John Paul bowed his head and prayed silently. It was his last stop before heading to the airport in his bulletproof popemobile.
For many pilgrims, the visit revived memories of John Paul's last trip here, in 1983. A huge video screen near the grotto played poignant images of a much younger, energetic John Paul visiting the sick during the early years of his papacy.
Despite his moments of weakness in Lourdes, the pope has surprised those who believed his travel days were over.
The Lourdes visit is his second this year after a June stop in Switzerland. He is scheduled to visit a shrine in Loreto, Italy, on Sept. 5, and the Vatican says he is considering an invitation by an Orthodox Christian leader to visit Istanbul, Turkey, later this year.