LOURDES, France: September 13, 2008. (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday prayed at revered Roman Catholic shrines at Lourdes after leading an open-air mass in central Paris attended by 260,000 people.
The leader of the world's one billion Catholics traveled to the town in southwest France to mark the 150th anniversary of the Vatican-recognised apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a French peasant girl.
After visiting a church where Bernadette Soubirous was baptised and the small room where her family lived in poverty, the pope went on his popemobile to the grotto where she had her "encounters" with the Madonna.
The pontiff knelt in prayer at the grotto of Masiabelle where the mother of Jesus Christ is said to have appeared 18 times to the girl in 1858. He also drank a glass of water from the "miracle" springs presented to him by a young girl.
The 81-year-old pontiff is making his first visit to France since his election in 2005.
Earlier, under bright sunshine at the historic Invalides esplanade in central Paris, Benedict appealed to young Catholics to shun the false "idols" of the modern world and told them not to be "afraid" of a religious life.
France is facing a freefall in the number of churchgoers despite its deep Christian roots, with only 10 percent of Catholics saying they attend mass regularly, according to a survey last year.
Benedict is to hold two masses in Lourdes, reaching out to the sick and disabled who come to Lourdes in search of a miracle from the spring water or pools.
Following a torchlight procession in the town square, Benedict praised Lourdes as a "place of light because it is a place of communion, hope and conversion."
At the shrine where Mary gave "pride of place to the sick, the poor and the little ones, we are invited to discover the simplicity of our vocation: it is enough to love," he told 40,000 faithful gathered in the square.
Organisers said they expected 150,000 faithful at the Sunday services in Lourdes, fewer than originally thought due to rain and a cold snap.
"The pope is bringing a message of peace," said Maryse Legat, who stood under grey skies near the arches of the Basilica of the Rosary leading to the grotto.
"He is here to guide us and give us certainties at a time when our world is caught up in too much turbulence," she said.
Benedict is to lead a special mass on Monday dedicated to the sick and ends his pilgrimage at a hospital chapel where Bernadette received the sacrament of the first communion.
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.
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.
Six million people visit Lourdes annually but the figure is expected to top eight million during this anniversary year.
Thousands of "miracle" cures have been claimed after visits to Lourdes but the Catholic Church has only certified 67.
The pope arrived in Paris on Friday, meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy who has called for easing France's strict secularism defined in a 1905 law on the separation of church and state.
Sarkozy, a twice-divorced lapsed Catholic, broke a French taboo during a trip to the Vatican last year by calling for a "positive secularism" that would allow space for religion in public life.
The pope sought to build on Sarkozy's position, saying Europe faced "disaster" if it turned away from religion.