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Frail Pope wheeled down the aisle for Mass

POPE Benedict XVI began using a wheeled platform today to navigate the long aisle of St Peter's Basilica, adopting the device employed by his ailing predecessor to reduce fatigue.

As the platform, pushed forward by aides, glided up the marble floor towards the main altar, Benedict gripped his pastoral staff with one hand and the device's support bar with the other.

The 84-year-old Pontiff occasionally took his hand off the bar to wave to thousands of faithful flanking his route in the basilica, where he celebrated a Mass dedicated to encouraging missionary zeal.

Benedict walked steadily around the central altar and up and down its steps, but appeared less sprightly than he usually does.

But Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi insisted the platform was not being used for any "medical reason".

"The sole purpose is to ease the effort of the Holy Father, to reduce the fatigue," the Rev Lombardi said.

No longer walking down the basilica aisle when Benedict arrives and leaves for ceremonies also makes the pontiff "more protected, because the Pope stays in his path in the centre" of the aisle, Rev Lombardi said.

Previously, Benedict used to occasionally take a few steps to either side to greet admirers.

During the solemn entrance procession in the basilica for Christmas Eve Mass in 2009, a woman with psychiatric problems scrambled over the barrier and in her eagerness to greet Benedict, knocked him down.

Benedict was unhurt, but an elderly cardinal in front of him toppled over and suffered a fracture.

Using the platform during basilica processions means the pontiff will no longer be able to reach over and shake hands or kiss babies.