LOURDES, France - A sick man among the sick, Pope John Paul II struggled through Sunday Mass at a French shrine that draws desperate people seeking miracle cures. The 84-year-old pontiff gasped, trembled and asked aides for help during the 2 1/2 hour service in sizzling heat.
More than 300,000 pilgrims packed a field overlooking the Lourdes grotto in the southwestern Pyrenees, where an illiterate peasant girl, St. Bernadette, said she had visions of a white-clad Virgin Mary in 1858.
Many pilgrims to Lourdes are sick, handicapped or aged. In blue wheelchairs lined up on the grass, they watched as the frail pope spoke from his wheeled throne, which was perched on a red-carpeted stage and shaded by a white tent.
The pontiff - who suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee problems - greeted the sick with "special affection."
The pope delivered his opening prayers clearly and with strength, but the homily in French left him trembling and gasping for air. At one point he paused to say, "Help me," in his native Polish.
Aides brought John Paul a glass of water, and he said he wanted to continue. Though he skipped several paragraphs, he was able to deliver a final, forceful point: a condemnation of abortion, cloning and euthanasia.
"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," he said. The pope also spoke out against materialism and secularism.
The pope also spoke out against materialism and secularism. He singled out women, asking them to be witnesses "of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart." The message was in line with a recent Vatican document accusing feminism of blurring the distinctions between men and women.