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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Pope joins pilgrimage to Lourdes
Jacques Chirac (left) with the Pope at Tarbes Airport, France
The ailing Pope is coming to a shrine revered for its cures
A weeping Pope John Paul II has visited the grotto of Lourdes on a two-day pilgrimage to one of the Roman Catholic world's most revered shrines.

It is his second pilgrimage to the shrine in southern France which six million visit each year, many of them sick and elderly and seeking a cure.

But aides say the Pope does not plan to pray for a miracle cure for himself.

French President Jacques Chirac welcomed the pontiff, who looked frail but alert in his wheelchair.

Dear brothers and sisters who are sick, how I would like to embrace each and every one of you
Pope John Paul II
Some believers come to the shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees in hope of a miracle cure while others look for encouragement and inner peace.

The 84-year-old pope was lifted out of his wheelchair and knelt for a moment, trembling, before the ivy-covered grotto.

He sipped a glass of water from the underground spring, according to the custom.

A French cardinal read out a message from the pontiff, who had been barely able to speak when he arrived at Tarbes Airport a short time before.

"Dear brothers and sisters who are sick, how I would like to embrace each and every one of you with affection, to tell you how close I am to you and how much I support you," the message said.

'Tireless pilgrim'

Mr Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, kissed the Pope's ring before escorting him into the VIP lounge at Tarbes Airport, 16km (10 miles) outside Lourdes.

The pontiff said he had come with "great emotion" to join pilgrims in seeking help and intercession from the Virgin Mary, to whom the shrine is dedicated.

Mr Chirac described the Pope as a "tireless pilgrim who embodies daring, courage and... strength".

He also made a call for peace and the rejection of hatred, saying there was "mounting fanaticism and intolerance".

France recently suffered a string of attacks apparently motivated by religious hatred, such as the desecration of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries.

Sacred grotto

It was in Lourdes that a 14-year-old French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed to have witnessed a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the bank of a swift flowing river in the mid-19th Century.

Each day thousands of pilgrims to the grotto of Bernadette pray, light candles and bathe in spring water, which they believe has special curative powers.

On Sunday, 250,000 people are expected to attend the Pope's Mass, celebrated in a field next to the grotto.

The BBC's David Willey notes that Pope John Paul II has always had a strong personal devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The BBC's Guto Harri
"John Paul II is now struggling with a debilitating disease"

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