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Sunday, August 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pope in Lourdes but not for cure

By Jason Horowitz
The New York Times

Pope John Paul II prays in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto of Lourdes in southwestern France yesterday.
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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 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 Barnarde 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 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.

During his prayer at the grotto, the pope, 84, 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. The pope, seemingly rested from a summer vacation but speaking in a hoarse voice, reiterated his appeal that European countries not turn their backs on their Christian roots.
"I cannot fail to mention the great saints who came from this land," said the pope, referring to France. "With respect for the responsibilities and competences of all, the Catholic Church desires to offer society a specific contribution."

Chirac has opposed any mention of the continent's Christian heritage in the European Union's constitution and has supported enforcing secularism in France's classrooms by prohibiting students from overtly displaying their religion with symbolic clothing such as head scarves.

Chirac said France and the Vatican were united in "a struggle for peace, for relations between states to be governed by law, challenging the policy of fait accompli and urging dialogue between cultures as an antidote to violence and the rejection of the other."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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