Preparations are under way for Pope Benedict's first visit to France.  Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Paris the pope is to arrive Friday.

More than 9,000 security officers have been mobilized for Pope Benedict's four-day visit to France.  The main purpose of Pope Benedict's trip is to visit the shrine of Lourdes, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, in the southwest region of the country.

He is to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary appearing to a peasant girl.  Millions of people visit the shrine every year.  The Catholic Church has recognized as miracles dozens of healings of sick pilgrims who visited Lourdes.

For the occasion, the Vatican has installed web cams in Lourdes to ensure even those who cannot be there can watch the event live using the Internet.

Pope Benedict will be welcomed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni, who will then host him at a reception at the presidential palace.

The pope is aware he is visiting one of Europe's most secular countries.  The split between Church and State here is enshrined in the national identity and Pope Benedict is expected to push for what he has called "a healthy secularism."

On Friday afternoon the pope is expected to meet with members of the world of culture in Paris at the College des Bernardins.  He will make an important speech to academics, artists, and scientists and is expected to further his argument that religious faith and reason can coexist in modern society.

In Paris, some were surprised to hear about Pope Benedict's visit.

This man said he did not know the pope was coming and said he was surprised he was here.

Like other secular European nations, France has been suffering from a steady decline in the number of churchgoers and priests.  Recent polls show that fewer than five percent of France's 62 million people attend Mass every week.

The archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, says the pope's visit will have a positive effect on the French and will allow them to get to know this pope better.

The archbishop says a lot of people say that Pope Benedict XVI has a lack of image, so thanks to his visit in France not only will they have the image, but also the reality.

A Saturday morning Mass in central Paris is expected to draw more than 150,000 people.  Pope Benedict will make his pilgrimage to Lourdes later in the day.