LOURDES, France (Reuters) - Pope Benedict anointed and prayed for 10 ailing Roman Catholics on Monday during his final mass at the Lourdes shrine in southwestern France whose waters are reputed to have the power of miraculous healing.
Patients on wheeled stretchers and elderly in wheelchairs, many huddled under blankets against the morning chill, joined about 30,000 faithful outside the basilica built over the grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1858.
Although Lourdes is known for the 67 miracles the Catholic Church says have occurred there, Benedict made no mention of them in his sermon on devotion to Mary. The anointing with consecrated oil was meant to bring spiritual healing, he said.
“Christ is not a healer in the manner of the world,” the German-born pontiff explained in his sermon. “Christ’s presence comes to break the isolation which pain induces. Man no longer bears his burden alone.”
Of the 10 he anointed, Benedict addressed eight in French, one in English and one in German. Only three were well enough to walk up unaided and kneel before him as he applied the oil to their foreheads and hands.
Benedict was due to return to Rome after the mass, the end of a four-day visit during which he encouraged a greater role for faith in French public life and told French bishops to make more space in their church for traditionalist Catholics.
His calls for a more tolerant “laicite,” the French division of church and state that mostly sidelines religion from public affairs, echoed those of President Nicolas Sarkozy but elicited criticism from secularists opposed to any change.
The pope’s masses and prayers during the four-day trip, timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary, displayed touches of the more traditional Catholicism he has emphasized during his papacy.
Compared to masses celebrated by his predecessor Pope John Paul, who last visited here in 2004, there were more Latin prayers. More older-style objects, such as chalices and candle-holders, were used during the liturgy.
French bishops were among the most critical of a decree last year by which Benedict allowed more frequent use of the old Tridentine mass, the centuries-old service in Latin preferred by traditionalists in the Church.
But Benedict told them on Sunday to make room for traditionalists.
“Everyone has a place in the Church,” he said of those who preferred the Latin Mass to the new liturgy in modern languages introduced after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965.
He also addressed other issues debated in France and of wider relevance to Catholics in other affluent countries.
He said the Vatican could not recognize “irregular unions” of Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church, an increasingly frequent phenomenon in developed countries.
The Church does not recognize divorce, considering the first marriage valid until the divorced obtain an official Church annulment of that union. Those who remarry without such an annulment are barred from receiving communion at mass.
Bishops in several countries have argued for some opening on this difficult issue, but Benedict said the Church could not change teachings on marriage laid down by Jesus himself.
The pope also urged the bishops to pursue serious dialogue with other religions but not waste time in talks that lead nowhere. This appeared to refer to relations with Muslims, whose 5-million-strong minority in France is Europe’s largest.