LOURDES, France – President Jacques Chirac (search) greeted a frail Pope John Paul II (search) as the pontiff arrived in France on Saturday to join other ailing pilgrims for a weekend of prayer at a shrine to the Virgin Mary, where Roman Catholics seek hope, inner peace and miraculous cures.
Up to 300,000 people are expected in Lourdes (search), a small town nestled in the Pyrenees, for the pontiff's two-day visit to a mountainside where Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.
Chirac and his wife Bernadette met the pope, seated in a wheelchair, on a red-carpeted runway at the airport in Tarbes. The Chiracs kissed the pope's ring and escorted him into a building where they were to speak briefly.
The shrine -- a grotto where the faithful pray, light candles and drink from a spring -- is associated with miraculous cures of the sick. The Vatican says, however, that the 84-year-old pope is not seeking a cure for his Parkinson's disease and other health problems.
The trip is John Paul's second this year after a June stop in Switzerland. He was expected at around 11 a.m. local time at an airport in nearby Tarbes, where he will be greeted by French President Jacques Chirac.
From there, he heads to the famous grotto to pray and sip from the spring discovered by Bernadette, an illiterate miller's daughter.
One highlight Saturday is expected to be a torch-lit procession at dusk. Pilgrims leave the grotto carrying slender white candles and following a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Mary holds a special significance for the pontiff. After he was shot by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter's Square in 1981, John Paul said Christ's mother "guided" the bullet's path to save his life.
On Sunday, the pope is to preside over an outdoor Mass in a field. His trip commemorates the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that says Mary was born without original sin.
Visitors flocked to Lourdes from around the globe for the event. An Indian family sat on the ground praying on rosary beads Friday evening. Prayers echoed over a loudspeaker in German, Italian and French.
While most of Lourdes' visitors are healthy, the site has added meaning for the sick. Thousands of people have claimed they were healed by the famous spring water, which pilgrims pour into small plastic vials in the shape of the Virgin Mary to take home.
The church has officially recognized 66 miracles at Lourdes since Bernadette had her vision of a white-clad Mary. Doctors study the claims to verify them -- an arduous process that takes years and culminates in a bishop's approval.
The shrine is said to have brought sight to the blind, cured multiple sclerosis and made tumors vanish.
Some of Lourdes' pilgrims come in wheelchairs and stretchers. Nurses, Scout troops and other volunteers help them eat, bathe in the spring or just shop at the myriad stands selling rosaries and Virgin Mary souvenirs.
Lourdes offers a rare chance for suffering people to relax, said Anne-Myriam Daubry, a 19-year-old Belgian volunteer.
"Several people told us they were happy to see everyone so full of joy," she said. "It's very moving to see."