An estimated 300,000 people packed the Pyrenean town hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff — there were so few rooms left that French radio advised latecomers to bring a tent.

The Pope, 84, was greeted at nearby Tarbes airport by Jacques Chirac, the French president, at the start of his 104th foreign visit, his seventh to France. He was officially celebrating the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the immaculate conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854. In 1858 the Virgin Mary was said to have first appeared to the peasant girl who became St Bernadette.

The Pope travelled the 10 miles to the Grotto of the Apparitions in his “popemobile”. In the midday sun tempers frayed as barriers prevented many in the crowds from getting a closer look. When the pontiff finally arrived, he delivered a shaky recital of the angelus and joined in prayers with other pilgrims.

His every move was greeted by cheers from the crowds and the chanting of “Papa” by teenage girls who sounded as ecstatic as if they had been at a pop concert. Later in the afternoon, after a rest in his modest room at the Accueil Notre-Dame, he headed a procession to the Basilica of Lourdes.

The Pope’s medical records had been flown to a nearby hospital in case of emergency and a specially equipped ambulance was part of the official cortege. If needed, a helicopter was on standby to take him to Italy.

Bishop Renato Boccardo, secretary of the pontifical council for social communications, played down reports that John Paul II — who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and respiratory ailments — was himself looking for a miracle. “To look at this pilgrimage as the trip of a sick person among the sick is totally short-sighted,” he said.

For the many Britons among the throng, yesterday had seemed an opportune time to visit Lourdes. “I’m not optimistic about a miracle,” said Caroline Holmes, from Darlingon, who is suffering from stomach cancer, “but this seemed as good a time as any to try for one.”