Following are excerpts from Pope John Paul II's comments yesterday to women religious at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception following Sister Theresa Kane's remarks.

My first desire in this national Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is to direct my thoughts, to turn my heart to the women of salvation history.

In the eternal design of God, this woman, Mary, was chosen to enter into the work of the incarnation and redemption. And this design of God was to be actuated through her free decision given in obedience to the divine will.

Through her yes -- a yes that pervades and is related in all history, she consented to be the Virgin Mother of our saving God, the handmaiden of the Lord and, at the same time, the mother of all the faithful who in the course of centuries would become the brothers and sisters of her Son . . .

This woman, this Mary of the Gospels, who is not mentioned as being at the last supper, comes back again at the foot of the cross, in order to consummate her contribution to the salvation history . . .

By her courageous act, she prefigures and anticipates the courage of all women throughout the ages who concur in bringing forth Christ in every generation . . . .

Desiring to perfect and intensify what God had begun in your life by baptism, and discerning that God was indeed offering you the gift of the evangelical counsels, you willed to follow Christ more closely, to conform your life more completely to that of Jesus Christ, in and through a distinctive religious community.

This is the essence of religious consecration: to profess within and for the benefit of the church, poverty, chastity and obedience in response to God's special invitation . . .

You are called by Jesus himself to verify and manifest in your lives and in your activities your deepened relationship with his church.

This bond of union with the church must also be shown in the spirit and apostolic endeavors of every religious institute.

For faithfulness to Christ, especially in religious life, can never be separated from faithfulness to the church.

This ecclesial dimension of the vocation of religious consecration has many important practical consequences for institutes themselves and for each individual member.

It implies, for example, a greater public witness to the gospel, since you represent, in a special way as women religious, the spousal relationship of the church to Christ . . .

A good example in this regard would be the Catholic school system, which has been invaluable for the church in the United States, an excellent means not only for communicating the gospel of Christ to the students, but also for permeating the entire community with Christ's truth and his love . . . .

Dear sisters in Christ: Jesus must always be first in your lives. His person must be at the center of your activities -- the activities of every day. No other person and no activity can take precedence over him . . .

Without prayer, religious life has no meaning. It has lost contact with its source, it has emptied itself of substance, and it no longer can fulfill its goal . . .

Your service in the church is . . . an extension of Christ to whom you have dedicated your life. For it is not yourself that you put forward, but Christ Jesus our Lord.

Like John the Baptist, you know that for Christ to increase, you must decrease. And so your life must be characterized by a complete availability; a readiness to serve as the needs of the church require . . .

The need for this public witness becomes a constant call to inner conversion, to justice and holiness of life on the part of each religious . . .

And it is for this reason that in my address last November to the International Union of Superiors General I mentioned that it is not unimportant that your consecreation to God should be manifested in the permanent exterior sign of a simple and suitable religious garb. This is not only my personal conviction, but also the desire of the church, often expressed by so many of the faithful.

As daughters of the church -- a title cherished by so many of your great saints -- you are called to a generous and loving adherence to the authentic magisterium of the church, which is a solid guarantee of the fruitfulness of all your apostolates and an indispensable condition for the proper interpretation of the "signs of the times."

The contemplative life occupies today and forever a place of great honor in the church. The prayer of contemplation was found in the life of Jesus himself, and has been a part of religious life in every age . . .

. . . I remind you, with sentiments of admiration and love, that the aim of religious life is to render praise and glory to the most Holy Trinity, and, through your consecration, to help humanity enter into fullness of life in the Father, and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit . . .

There is no greater service you can give; there is no greater fulfillment you can receive. Dear sisters, today and forever, Praised be Jesus Christ.