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Pope celebrates mass at Lourdes shrine

FRANCE: Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an open-air mass in Lourdes on Sunday, leading more than 100,000 faithful in prayer in the French town that is one of the most revered Christian shrines.

The mass on the prairie of the sanctuary marked the 150th anniverary of the Vatican-recognised apparitions of the Virign Mary to French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous.

Under clear skies, the pope arrived aboard his popemobile, waving and smiling to the faithful who had come early to secure a spot on the sprawling field near the grotto where Mary is said to have appeared in 1858.

The 81-year-old pontiff arrived in the southwestern town in the foothills of the Pyrenees on Saturday for a pilgrimage after leading a mass in central Paris attended by 260,000 people.

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.

Organisers said they expected 150,000 faithful at the Sunday services, fewer than originally planned due to several days of rain and a cold snap. The leader of the world's one billion Catholics is making his first visit to France since his election in 2005.

Lourdes, Sunday, AFP

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