Pope Francis has been named as the winner of the International Charlemagne Prize, awarded annually by the German city of Aachen for contributions to European unity.

The prize committee said Wednesday that the pontiff has sent "a message of hope and encouragement" at a time in which "many citizens in Europe are seeking orientation," news agency dpa reported.

The prize is usually awarded in Aachen but the 2016 prize will be handed over in Rome. There was no immediate word on the date.

Previous winners include former U.S. President Bill Clinton and St. John Paul II, who received a special edition of the prize in 2004.

The Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne once ruled a large swath of western Europe from Aachen, near the Belgian border.