Pope Benedict XVI ended a four-day controversial visit to France on Monday with a mass for the sick in the southern pilgrimage site of Lourdes whose waters are said to have miraculous healing powers.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass at the Lourdes shrine in southwestern France
Thousands of ill people from all over the world, many of them in wheelchairs or on stretchers, took part in the mass in the hope of a miraculous cure or simply a boost to their morale.
"Many cures occur within," said 44-year-old Andrea Leffers from Papenburg, Germany, who has been partly paralyzed since suffering a stroke. She said she came to Lourdes "to find the strength to face the everyday."
Helene Damon of France came with her one-year-old daughter Philippine, who was born paralyzed.
"I am not hoping for a miracle, but I need courage to be able to live with it," she said.
However, Margaret Clarke of Ireland said she came to cure her autistic 10-year-old son. "Of course, I believe in a miracle. That is part of our faith."
Millions of Christian pilgrims flock to Lourdes every year
Lourdes has been a popular destination for Christian pilgrims since 1858, when 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous said the Virgin Mary appeared to her 18 times. This year, as many as 8 million people are expected to travel here.
Benedict XVI came to Lourdes as a pilgrim to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the appearances. He comforted the sick, urging them to accept death "at the hour chosen by God" in comments reasserting the Vatican's opposition to euthanasia.
The issue has sparked debate in Europe in recent years. Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized euthanasia, and Switzerland allows counselors or physicians to prepare lethal doses of medications, though patients must take them on their own.
Pope visit stirs political controversy
The 81-year-old pontiff's four-day visit -- his first trip to France since he was elected pope in April 2005 -- has provoked a political controversy, with opposition politicians accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy of wanting to weaken the country's secularism.
Benedict XVI began the visit on Friday in Paris where he was welcomed by Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to the Elysee Palace.
"It would be a folly to deprive ourselves of religion," Sarkozy said on that occasion, and called for a principle of "positive laicity, open laicity, an invitation to dialogue, tolerance and respect."
Laicity is what the French call their strict principle of the separation of church and state, which was made a law in 1905 and has become part of the country's identity.
Sarkozy is under fire for receiving the pope in staunchly secular France
"There is no positive or negative laicity, no open or closed laicity, no tolerant or intolerant laicity," the head of the Socialist Party Francois Holland said. "There is only laicity."
On Sunday, in Lourdes, the pope supported Sarkozy, saying that to "emphasize the Christian roots of France... a new way must be found to interpret and experience every day the fundamental values on which a nation's identity is built."
He added, "Your president has described a way."
Pope reasserts strict ban on divorce
However, on Sunday, Benedict XVI also noted that the Church would not change its strict ban on divorce.
"The Church ... firmly maintains the principle of the indissolubility of marriage," he said at a meeting of bishops at Lourdes. "Hence initiatives aimed at blessing illegitimate unions cannot be accepted."
The pope's declaration is unlikely to find much support in France where nearly half of all French marriages end in divorce and more than half of all babies born last year were born out of wedlock.
It's also hardly likely to have pleased Sarkozy who has been married three times.