It was for John Paul II a long minute of silence, unsteadily kneeling at the prie-dieu, the face contracted by pain, but his first encounter with the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was the "purpose of his pilgrimage".
As the bells solemnly tolled for the Angelus, the Pope was back, tired, but still on duty for today's mass, his head in his hands as if it would burst, his voice trailing in agony.
Jokingly, someone had said before the Pope's journey that a miracle would take place in Lourdes and the Pope's ailments would be gone. Indeed, he did sip water from the blessed fountain, but the hope-for miracle did not materialise. Or did it not?
The miracle was not what one might have expected. It was to be found in the hope with which a trembling Pontiff and the sick and infirm of the world looked at Lourdes and their condition.
And what an ironic coincidence that the pilgrimage should occur at Ferragosto (from the Latin Feriae Augusti or August holidays), a uniquely Italian holiday rooted in the country's ancient history. Unlike the past when it celebrated fertility and maternity, it now expresses a desire to shake off life's worries, to escape from the present and seek fun in the sun, in the sea, on the mountains. Sadly, the orgy-like celebrations stirring the warm night of Ferragosto mark a quest for what is new but unrealisable, a lethal joie de vivre that hides boredom.
In Lourdes, instead, there is no escape from life's intrusions. Weariness, sickness, the horrible injuries inherent in the fragile human condition are stoically borne in procession not as an unfortunate exception to the rule, but rather as a sign that human life bears in the flesh a greater mystery to which we must all reverently bow.
Whoever comes to Lourdes has his or her eyes opened to how the sick and infirm are welcomed, cared for, held in high regard, to how life is embraced, not refused.
Thousands of miles from the imposing crowds of pilgrims celebrating the mass at la Prairie in Lourdes, others celebrate the liturgy of the XXVIIIth Olympiad. Whereas injured bodies plea for humanity under the gaze of the statue of the Virgin, strong and beautiful bodies compete in the shadow of the Parthenon, hoping that sport might bring some peace to a world damaged by war.
Which hope is more hopeless? Despite the best efforts of Olympic officials the world of sport remains hostage to doping, corruption, ceaseless and senseless competition, and power politics.
The hope Lourdes embodies lies in the grotto of the Virgin. Like a womb it delivers man his freedom, restores his forgiven responsibility.
Yesterday the Pope called on all of us to pray that "everyone [may] see in his neighbour not an enemy to be fought, but a brother to be accepted and loved, so that we may join in building a better world."
In Lourdes everything is possible. Processions and multilingual liturgies bear witness to a renewed brotherhood among "every race, people, tribe, and language" (cf. Apoc 7,9).
Marian Sanctuaries around the world link Christianity's sense of brotherhood to people of other cultures and religions Muslims, Indus, Shinto who find in this Maternal figure the strength for a new beginning.
Lourdes does not represent a consolation prize for the physical and spiritual losers of this world. It is the heart from which life and hope blossom for the world. There is no better proof of this than the great number of young people who these days thronged Lourdes.
At the end of his pilgrimage, the Pope invited them to World Youth Day in Cologne (Germany) next year. "These encounters," he told them, "have given me great hope that I share with you today. Dear young friends! Follow Mary's teachings and bring a breath of fresh air to the world!"