VATICAN CITY, APRIL 21, 2010 ( Benedict XVI today blessed a statue of the Virgin Mary that survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

The wooden statue was housed in the Urakami Cathedral, which was the largest Catholic church in East Asia. It had been built on a site where Christians had for years endured persecution.

Though disfigured by the bomb, the intact head of the statue was found among the cathedral ruins.

Now, the statue is on a peace pilgrimage to Spain and the United States, passing today through Rome, where the Pope blessed it at the end of the general audience.

Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki was with a group of pilgrims to greet the Holy Father at the end of the audience.

The bishop explained how he linked the image of Mary that endured the Japanese bombing with another Marian image that survived the 1937 bombing of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.

In the two images, Bishop Takami said he sees a sign of peace, which is the focus of the current pilgrimage.

"I hope that the pilgrimage not only permits more people to learn of the suffering caused by the atomic bombing, but also that it becomes a call to peace with the use of non-violence," he said.

The pilgrimage was initiated by a Catholic from Nagasaki, who thought of visiting various Spanish cities before arriving to Guernica.

At that site, the Japanese pilgrims will visit the Museum of Peace; an exposition is under way there on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Last Feb. 26, the bishops of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sent a message to the president of the United States, the Japanese government, and the nations of the world, urging "courageous steps" toward eliminating nuclear arms and "building a world without war."

They further encouraged the acceptance and fulfillment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.