LOURDES, August 16, 2004 ( – Pope John Paul II concluded his 104th international trip yesterday, celebrating Mass at France’s foremost Marian shrine in the presence of over 300,000 pilgrims. Lourdes is an especially meaningful place for the ailing Pontiff, who took time out between public appearances for private devotion at the shrine.  When he instituted the World Day of the Sick in 1992, Pope John Paul II chose February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as the date on which the event would be celebrated each year.  Though Lourdes is famous for miraculous cures and draws ailing visitors from every continent, John Paul II did not travel to Lourdes to seek healing for himself. Instead, he sought “maternal consolation and interior strength” for himself and for all who suffer, according to top Vatican official Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. “Suffering from illness and from old age,” the Bavarian cardinal said, the pope “goes to pray at this Marian shrine in a gesture of solidarity with the world that suffers.”

The pope read his homily with obvious difficulty but with much encouragement and applause from the crowd. He reminded women of their irreplaceable mission in society: “From this grotto I issue a special call to women. Appearing here, Mary entrusted her message to a young girl, as if to emphasize the special mission of women in our own time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism: to be in today’s society a witness of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart. To you, women, falls the task of being sentinels of the Invisible!”  The 84-year-old pope urged his hearers to respect, love and protect life. He said, “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. Life is a sacred gift, and no one can presume to be its master.”  For full text of the pope’s homily, see