Pope Benedict XVI urged ailing pilgrims to accept death "at the hour chosen by God," reasserting the Vatican's opposition to euthanasia on Monday at an open-air Mass for the sick in Lourdes.
Benedict administered the sacrament of the sick to pilgrims outside the French shrine reputed for its curative powers. In the crowd, many pilgrims in wheelchairs and on gurneys were bundled in quilts against the chill.
In his homily, the pope said the ill should pray to find "the grace to accept, without fear or bitterness, to leave this world at the hour chosen by God." The Vatican vehemently maintains that life must continue to its natural end.
The message has special resonance in Europe. Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized euthanasia, and Switzerland allows counselors or physicians to prepare a lethal dose, though patients must take it on their own.
France permits patients to refuse treatment that can keep them alive but stops short of allowing euthanasia. The debate in France was revived this year with the death of a woman whose tumor burrowed through her head, leaving her with constant pain, hemorrhaging and difficulty eating.
Shrine draws ill pilgrims
Benedict's Mass for the sick outside the gold mosaic facade of the Basilica of the Rosary was the final stop of his visit to Lourdes. The shrine in the foothills of the French Pyrenees draws 6 million pilgrims a year, many of whom believe that Lourdes' spring water has the power to heal and even work miracles.
Helped by attendants, the sick bathe in pools of the cool water and take it home in plastic jugs and vials in the shape of the Virgin Mary. Thousands of people have claimed to be cured here, and the Roman Catholic church has officially recognized 67 incidents of miraculous healing linked to Lourdes.
At the close of Mass, Benedict anointed 10 ailing pilgrims, ranging from a teenage boy to an elderly nun in a white habit. He gently touched their foreheads and palms with oil and addressed each one in his or her own language.
'Struggles ... we cannot sustain alone'
The pope urged the ailing to remember that "dignity never abandons the sick person."
"Unfortunately we know only too well: the endurance of suffering can upset life's most stable equilibrium, it can shake the firmest foundations of confidence, and sometimes even leads people to despair of the meaning and value of life," the pope said.
"There are struggles that we cannot sustain alone, without the help of divine grace," he said.
Maryse Bargain, a 48-year-old woman from the Brittany region of northwest France, was among those praying for healing. She expressed hope that the pope, "someone else or the Virgin" might help cure the blindness she has suffered from since birth.
Benedict planned his trip to mark the 150th anniversary of visions of the Virgin Mary to a Lourdes peasant girl, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, who was later named a saint. On Monday he wrapped up a visit of sites linked to Bernadette's life, stopping at the chapel where she received her First Communion.
The pontiff departed by plane for Rome en route to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo after his four-day trip to Paris and Lourdes — his first visit to France since his election as pope in 2005.
Benedict said he hoped to return to France though that decision was "in the hands of God."