Aged and frail, the head of the Roman Catholic Church is set to arrive in Lourdes on  Saturday, determined to shake off the crippling yoke of Parkinson's disease and complete the 104th foreign trip of his pontificate.

Security was high in this town near the border with Spain, close to which a 14-year-old girl claimed she saw a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in 1858.

Healing touch

For Roman Catholics Lourdes is synonymous with healing and visited yearly by tens of thousands of disabled pilgrims seeking the healing spring waters of the shrine.

But the Vatican says the 84-year-old pope is not seeking a cure for his own infirmity, but thanking God for His gifts.

At least 300,000 pilgrims were expected on the scene to welcome the pope during his two-day stay.

Security precautions were massive, with 3000 police including 2700 reinforcements dominating the scene in and around Lourdes.

"There's no definite threat hovering over the event," said Christian Ballet, in charge of security logistics during international visits to France. "But vigilance remains the rule."

The Catholic Church officially recognises 66 miracles attributed to Lourdes' healing waters.

The 14-year-old local peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary, later reportedly discovered the blessed spring, which has never dried.

The spring's holy water has to be stocked to cope with demand during the high pilgrimage season in Lourdes.

John Paul II last visited the town 21 years ago.