Today the Pope met with over 1,500 Sri Lankan pilgrims, assuring them of his prayers for continued peace in the conflict-ridden nation and expressing his hope for a future visit.

Most of those present were migrants currently living in Italy. After they had participated in a mass celebrated by Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, Pope Francis joined them saying, "I greet you, dear brothers and sisters of the Sri Lankan community in Italy!"

"I extend fraternal greetings to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the other Bishops of your homeland. And I thank Cardinal Ranjith for the invitation to visit Sri Lanka," he added. "I welcome this invitation, and I think the Lord will grant us the grace."

The Feb. 8 pilgrimage marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the consecration of the Church in Sri Lanka to Our Lady.

"Seventy-five years ago, the dark clouds of what would be the second world conflict were thickening in the skies and the faithful, guided by a sure intuition of faith, entrusted themselves to Our Lady, who always defends her children from dangers," Pope Francis recalled.

"In 1940, in the dramatic circumstances of the war, the Archbishop of Colombo, Msgr. Jean-Marie Masson, of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, made a vow to build a shrine in honor of Our Lady if the island were preserved from foreign invasion," he said.

At the end of the war, the island nation had been preserved, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Lanka at Tewatte was built.

Pope Francis went on to acknowledge that such peace has not lasted through recent years.

"Your homeland is called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, on account of its natural beauty and its shape. They say that the pearl is formed from the tears of the oyster. Unfortunately, many tears have been shed in recent years, on account of the internal conflict which caused so many victims and so much damage," he observed.

Sri Lanka has been plagued by civil conflict, violence, and ethnic tensions for decades: an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people were killed while almost 300,000 have been displaced.

"It is not easy, I know, to heal the wounds and cooperate with yesterday's enemy to build tomorrow together, but it is the only path that gives hope for the future, for development and for peace," encouraged Pope Francis.

The pontiff urged those present to turn to Mary for help in the continued rebuilding of peace.

"Dear brothers and sisters, Our Lady is always close to us, she looks upon each one of us with maternal love and accompanies us always on our journey. Do not hesitate to turn to her for every need, especially when the burden of life with all its problems makes itself felt."

He then assured the pilgrims, "you have a particular place in my prayer. I ask the Lord to grant you the gift of peace and reconciliation, and to help you in your effort to ensure a better future for all who live in Sri Lanka."

"I entrust you to the maternal intercession of Mary, Our Lady of Lanka. I ask you to pray for me and from my heart I bless you," he concluded.