LOURDES, France (AP) - People must accept death at "the hour chosen by God," Pope Benedict XVI told ailing pilgrims Monday in an anti-euthanasia message at Lourdes, the shrine that draws the desperate, sick and dying.

At the chilly open-air service outside the sanctuary reputed for its curative spring water, some faithful lay on gurneys, tucked into quilts and comforters. A few breathed with oxygen tanks. The 81-year-old pontiff administered the sacrament of the sick to 10 people, most in wheelchairs, gently anointing their foreheads and palms with oil.

While several European countries permit euthanasia, the Vatican vehemently maintains that life must continue to its natural end. The pope said in his homily that 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 Mass closed the pope's four-day trip to France, his first to the country since becoming pontiff in 2005. Benedict used the trip to lay out the church's opposition to rampant materialism in modern life and recognition of divorced Catholics' new marriages.

The pontiff also urged more room for religion in society, a topic that renewed long-simmering debate in France about its historic separation of church and state — so staunch that schoolchildren cannot wear Muslim head scarves or large crosses around their necks in public schools.

In a traditionally Roman Catholic country with a dwindling churchgoing population and a growing Muslim community, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has argued that dialogue with religious groups should play a greater role in national decisions and debate — a subject on which he and Benedict found common ground.

Julien Dray, the spokesman of the opposition Socialists, complained that the stances that Benedict repeated in Lourdes were "fundamentalist" and "closed to the evolutions taking place in the church." During the visit, he said, Sarkozy "did not put enough distance between religious practice and the public sphere."

Francois Bayrou, a centrist politician, has said he had reservations about Sarkozy inviting the pope to the presidential Elysee Palace because it is a symbol of the French Republic. Bayrou is a Catholic who showed up for Sunday Mass at Lourdes.

Despite the political debate that erupted during the trip, the main purpose of Benedict's visit was 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.

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.

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.

At Mass for the sick outside the gold mosaic facade of Lourdes' Basilica of the Rosary, 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.

"For each person, suffering is always something alien," he said. "It can never be tamed."

The pope's anti-euthanasia message followed up renewed debate on the subject this year in France following the death of a woman whose tumor burrowed through her head, leaving her disfigured and in constant pain. While Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized euthanasia, France permits patients to refuse treatment that can keep them alive but stops short of allowing euthanasia.

(Source: Angela Doland, Associated Press Writer, Mon Sep 15, 2008)