LOURDES, September 14 – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an open-air mass in the French town of Lourdes on Sunday, leading more than 150,000 faithful in prayer at one of the most revered Roman Catholic shrines.,
The mass marked the 150th anniversary of the Vatican-recognised apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a French peasant girl in a grotto that now draws millions of pilgrims.
Under clear skies, the pontiff spoke from a white podium set up on a sprawling field near the grotto where Mary is said to have appeared 18 times to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
"There is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weaknesses and sins. The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us," he said.
The 81-year-old pontiff joined 230 bishops dressed in red flowing robes and mitres in the southwestern town, on the third day of his visit to France.
Singing hymns, tens of thousands of faithful, some wheelchair-bound or on stretchers, flocked to the prairie of the Lourdes sanctuary for the Sunday services delivered in several languages.
Lourdes is a magnet for the sick and disabled in search of a miracle cure from the water of the grotto’s springs.
On Saturday, 260,000 people attended mass in central Paris during which the pope appealed to young Catholics to shun the false "idols" of the modern world and told them not to be "afraid" of a religious life.
Despite its deep Christian heritage, France is facing a freefall in the number of churchgoers, with only 10 percent of Catholics saying they attend mass regularly.
Benedict was to meet with French bishops later Sunday to discuss the state of French Catholicism.
For the German pope, the Lourdes visit is an opportunity to shed his image in France as a cold theologian lacking the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II.
"He is a man of great depth and I feel close to him," said Jeanne, 70, from Saint-Etienne, in central France. "He may not be as telegenic as John Paul, but he has a deep faith."
During an emotional visit to the shrine in 2004, a year before his death, John Paul declared himself "a sick man among the sick" as he struggled with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
Benedict arrived Saturday for a pilgrimage to the town in the foothills of the Pyrenees that draws six million people every year.
After visiting a church where Bernadette was baptised and the small room where her family lived in poverty, the pope went to the place where she had 18 "encounters" with the Madonna.
The pontiff knelt in prayer at the grotto of Masiabelle and drank a glass of water from the "miracle" springs, which was presented to him by a young girl.
Benedict is to lead a special mass on Monday dedicated to the sick and ends his pilgrimage at a hospital chapel where Bernadette received the sacrament of the first communion.
The leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is making his first visit to France since his election in 2005.
The pope arrived in Paris on Friday, meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has called for easing France’s strict secularism defined in a 1905 law on the separation of church and state.
Sarkozy, a twice-divorced lapsed Catholic, broke a French taboo during a trip to the Vatican last year by calling for a "positive secularism" that would allow space for religion in public life.
The pope sought to build on Sarkozy’s position, saying Europe faced "disaster" if it turned away from religion.