Joined by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, Pope John Paul II will make a trip this weekend to Lourdes, France, visiting a shrine associated with miraculous cures.
The Vatican insists the 84-year-old pontiff, slowed by Parkinson's disease and other ailments, is not seeking a cure for his illnesses, but the visit today and tomorrow clearly holds special significance for him.
"I consider the possibility of returning to Lourdes a special gift of Providence," the pope told pilgrims Wednesday at his summer residence outside Rome.
The pope visited the sanctuary in 1983 after recovering from a 1981 assassination attempt.
French bishops say as many as 300,000 pilgrims are expected in the town near the Pyrenees. The shrine attracts 6 million people a year who come to drink and bathe in the waters of the grotto where Roman Catholic tradition holds that Saint Bernadette saw visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858.
French church officials say the pope is expected to drink from the spring and pray. He will also preside over a candlelight procession and celebrate an open-air Mass.
"In every circumstance I will carry, in my heart, the thanks and entreaties of all the church and, I would say, of the entire world, that only in God can peace and salvation be found," John Paul told the pilgrims this week.
The church has recognized 66 miracles at Lourdes, although thousands more who prayed at and bathed in the waters have claimed to have been healed.
Officially, the visit is to mark the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Christ's mother was born free of original sin.
Devotion to Mary has been an important part of John Paul's papacy, which has included visits to a number of Marian shrines around the world. After he was shot by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter's Square in 1981, John Paul said Mary guided the bullet's path to spare his life.
Unlike during his previous visit to Lourdes, John Paul is in a constant struggle with physical infirmities, often slurring his words and unable to walk without assistance. He suffers from knee and hip ailments. Papal aides move him around on a wheeled throne.
Still, John Paul has surprised those who believed his travel days were over. He looked especially weak in October, when the Vatican held a series of public events to mark the 25th anniversary of his election as pope.
The Lourdes visit is the 104th foreign pilgrimage of John Paul's 25-year papacy and the second this year, after a June stop in Switzerland. He is scheduled to visit a shrine in Loreto, Italy, on Sept. 5, and the Vatican says John Paul is considering an invitation by an Orthodox Christian leader to visit Istanbul this year.
The Vatican gives few details on the pope's health or medical treatment, although it denies reports he is taking a special papaya cure prescribed by French doctor Luc Montagnier. Montagnier, who co-discovered the AIDS virus, said he suggested the cure during a 2002 meeting with John Paul.