The pope underlined his opposition to euthanasia today when he met the sick and dying on their pilgrimages to Lourdes.
He told them to accept death “at the hour chosen by God,” at an open-air Mass on the final day of his visit to France.
He administered the sacrament of the sick to pilgrims in wheelchairs and on trolleys, many 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 legalised euthanasia, and Switzerland allows counsellors or physicians to prepare a lethal dose, although patients must administer it themselves.
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 tumour burrowed through her head, leaving her with constant pain, haemorrhaging and difficulty eating.
The 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 six 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 recognised 67 incidents of miraculous healing linked to Lourdes.
At the close of Mass, the pope 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.
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.
The pope’s trip was planned 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.