Pope sends France message of love ahead of weekend visit
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking Wednesday two days before his first visit to France as pontiff, praised the French people for their "generous tradition of hospitality and tolerance."
"On the eve of my arrival (in France) I wish to send a cordial greeting to the French people and all the inhabitants of this beloved nation," Benedict said at the end of his traditional mid-week general audience at the Vatican, reported dpa.
Benedict, speaking in French, said he would travel as a "pilgrim of peace and fraternity" in a trip which includes a visit to Paris and a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, as head of state, is scheduled to break French protocol by personally welcoming Benedict upon his arrival at Paris' Orly airport on Friday. Normally it is the duty of the French prime minister, as head of government, to greet top visiting dignitaries.
Benedict on Wednesday recalled how on visits to France before his 2005 election as pope, he appreciated the "solid" French Christian faith and the country's "great human and spiritual culture."
The pontiff also referred to the main purpose of his visit: attending the 150th anniversary in the southern town of Lourdes of what Roman Catholics believe were apparitions of Jesus' mother, Mary, to a miller's daughter, Bernadette Soubirous.
Benedict said he looked forward with "joy" to joining the crowds of pilgrims who pay homage to Mary by visiting the grotto in which she is said to have appeared.
Millions of people visit the Lourdes shrine every year, with many collecting some of the grotto's spring water which is believed by some to possess healing powers.
Benedict is scheduled to return to Rome on Monday, September 15.