Benedict gave a late-morning mass at the Lourdes shrine during a three-day pilgrimage to the French sanctuary.
About 150,000 pilgrims, singing hymns and some shouldering a life-sized crucifix, streamed through the rain-soaked countryside near the Pyrenees to attend the mass on a grassy expanse known as the Lourdes prairie.
The spot is visited each year by millions of pilgrims who believe miracles can be delivered by Bernadette Soubirous — the 14-year-old daughter of peasants who told local clergy in 1858 that she had seen the Virgin Mary 18 times.
Benedict spent the night at a hermitage, after praying at the Lourdes grotto where a spring of water broke through the ground during the months Bernadette saw the apparitions of Mary.
On Saturday night, the Pope drank some of the water in the grotto. He later told the faithful who carried torches in a procession through the town that, by following in Bernadette’s footsteps, pilgrims enter into the “extraordinary closeness between heaven and earth”.
As torch lights twinkled in the night, the pope likened this link between the heavenly and the terrestrial to a “luminous path” which “opens up in human history, even in its darkest moments”.
Speaking of the pilgrims who flock to Lourdes from around the world, Benedict wondered aloud how many come here “with the hope — secretly perhaps — of receiving some miracle” and upon their return home undergo a spiritual experience that fills them with “hope, compassion, tenderness”.
More than five million people visit Lourdes every year — some brought to the spring in wheelchairs and stretchers — in hopes that drinking and bathing in the water will heal their ailments. The church has officially recognised 67 miracle cures linked to Lourdes over the years.
Countless believers in the water’s healing power come to Lourdes to drink or bathe in it, and bring home flasks and even petrol-can-sized plastic containers of the spring’s water.
French bishops came to Lourdes for a meeting later yesterday with the Pope, who wants to shore up flagging faith in the traditionally Roman Catholic country where mass attendance is very low.