MARIAZELL, Austria -- In the hills of central Austria, Pope Benedict XVI went before a rain-soaked crowd of pilgrims yesterday and urged them to rediscover Christianity and revitalize Europe's beleaguered Catholic Church.
Speaking at one of the continent's best-known shrines to the Virgin Mary, the pope said Christianity is "more than, and different from, a moral code." It is a way of life, of family and relationship to society, he said.
"It also contains within itself great moral strength, which is so urgently needed today on account of the challenges of our times," he said. Christianity can "reveal to us who we are, from where we come and where we are going."
The pope held a soggy, open-air Mass here at a rustic sanctuary where the faithful have been coming for the miraculous healing powers of Mary for centuries. The shrine at Mariazell, a ski resort about 50 miles southwest of Vienna, marks its 850th year this weekend, an anniversary that he said provided the impetus for his three-day visit to Austria.
He prayed before a Gothic statue of Mary and the child Jesus, the shrine's most revered monument.
Fierce rains played havoc with the day's events, first forcing organizers to abandon plans to fly the pope to the shrine in a military helicopter. He was driven instead. The area received more rain during one 24-hour period last week than the normal amount for all of September, Austrian media reported.
Seventy bishops who had to wait in the outdoor stands for the pope for more than an hour were wrapped in clear-plastic slickers with pointed hoods. The drums in the orchestra and the papal throne were also wrapped in plastic, the latter unveiled shortly before the pope's arrival.
In contrast to the leaden skies, the pope and senior prelates wore bright robes in canary yellow and periwinkle blue. White mist crowned the green hills that rose up on either side of the basilica where the pope led Mass in the morning and vesper prayers in the late afternoon.
The Vatican says one main purpose of the pope's pilgrimage to Austria is to bolster a church dogged by sexual abuse scandals, apathy and declining membership. That goal is part of his larger agenda of protecting the church against a rising tide of secularism and Muslim immigration that dilutes what the pope considers to be the Christian identity of Europe.
Fear of acknowledging Christianity's certain truth "lies at the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe," the pontiff said during the Mass.
"So if we call [Jesus Christ] the one universal mediator of salvation, valid for everyone and, ultimately, needed by everyone, this does not mean that we despise other religions, nor are we arrogantly absolutizing our own ideas," he said.
"On the contrary, it means that we are gripped by him who has touched our heart and lavished gifts upon us, so that we, in turn, can offer gifts to others."
The pope also stressed the importance of promoting traditional Christian families as a vital component of ensuring the future of Europe.
The day before, he had repeated his strong condemnation of abortion. He urged European Christians to have more children, and their governments to adopt policies restricting abortion and encouraging people to have more children. (Portugal was the latest in a string of predominantly Catholic countries to legalize many abortions.)
Pilgrims, estimated by organizers to number 30,000, were bused into the tiny town from all over Austria, as well as from Hungary, Slovakia and other parts of central Europe. They gathered early, and many waited hours to see the pope. Markus Kroessbacher, 29, traveled from Austria's western Tyrolean region to see "one of the most important people in the world."
"People are leaving the church because they don't think they have the time, and it's not important to them," he said. "But the pope is telling us that we need God, we need his help, especially when we are alone."
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.