Pope John Paul II has traveled to the southwestern French town of Lourdes for a two-day pilgrimage to the mountain shrine where Roman Catholics seek hope and inner peace. It is the second time the Pope has visited Lourdes during his long papacy.

Calling himself a sick man among the sick, the pope arrived at the shrine of Lourdes on Saturday, and urged society not to cast aside the old and the suffering.

Every year, six million people visit the small town in the French Pyrenees, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.

At the famous grotto where the visions are said to have taken place, the 84-year-old pope knelt for a moment, trembling, before the ivy-covered grotto. He appeared to lose his balance and was immediately helped back into his wheelchair.

A French cardinal read out a message from the pope.

"Dear brothers and sisters who are sick," the message said, "how I would like to embrace each and every one of you with affection, to tell you how close I am to you and how much I support you."

Pope John Paul sipped a glass of holy water from the underground spring, according to the custom. The waters of Lourdes are said to bring miraculous healings, but the Vatican has denied the pope was seeking a cure for his Parkinson's disease.

Earlier, the pope was met at the airport in nearby Tarbes by French President Jacques Chirac and his wife.

In a welcoming speech, Mr. Chirac called the pope "a universal pastor and a man of peace," and he said "France and the Holy See are joined in the fight for a world, which places Man at the center of every enterprise."

On Saturday evening, the pope was to take part in a torch-lit procession during which pilgrims leave the grotto carrying slender white candles and following a statue of the Virgin Mary.

On Sunday, the pope is to preside over an outdoor Mass in a field, which is expected to be attended by at least 300,000 pilgrims.

The pope's journey to Lourdes, his 104th trip outside the Vatican since his election in 1978, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that says Mary was born without original sin.