LOURDES, France | Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday celebrated Mass before 150,000 faithful in the shrine town of Lourdes before urging French bishops to defend church doctrine on marriage and divorce.
The pontiff said the church will not open up to divorced Roman Catholics and appealed to bishops to “uphold firmly, even at the cost of opposing prevailing trends” marriage as a “stable union” between a man and a woman.
Making the first visit to France of his papacy, Benedict celebrated an open-air Mass to mark the 150th anniversary of what Catholics believe were the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a peasant girl in a grotto.
Under clear skies, the pope spoke from a white podium set up on a sprawling field not far from the grotto that has become one of the world’s most revered Catholic shrines.
“The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us,” he told followers, urging them to be true to their faith.
The southwestern town in the foothills of the Pyrenees is a magnet for the sick and disabled in search of a miracle cure from the grotto’s springs.
On Monday, Benedict is to lead a special Mass dedicated to the sick.
The papal visit comes at a time of unease in the French Catholic Church as it battles a freefall in the number of churchgoers, despite the nation’s deep Christian heritage.
Speaking to bishops, the pope acknowledged that families were in crisis, “experiencing real turbulence” in societies that have lost their moral compass.
“A particularly painful situation concerns those who are divorced and remarried,” said the pontiff.
While the church is not off-limits to remarried Catholics and will surround them “with the greatest affection,” it “firmly maintains the principle of the indissolubility of marriage,” he said.
“Initiatives aimed at blessing irregular unions cannot be admitted,” he said.