Pope Benedict XVI led tens of thousands of people today in celebrating the 150th anniversary of St Bernadette's religious visions in Lourdes, where believers have since prayed for physical or spiritual healing.
Benedict was giving a late-morning Mass at the Lourdes shrine during a three-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary.
About 50,000 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 six million pilgrims who believe miracles can be delivered by Bernadette Soubirous – the 14-year-old daughter of peasants who in 1858 told local clergy 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.
Last night the Pope drank some of the water in the grotto.
On Friday he said he was not coming to seek miracles at Lourdes, which he has likened to a citadel of hope.
But countless believers in the water’s healing power come to Lourdes to drink or bathe in it, and bring home flasks and even gas-can sized plastic containers of the spring’s water.
French bishops came to Lourdes for a meeting later today with the Pope, who wants to shore up flagging faith in the traditionally Catholic country where Mass attendance is very low.