.- "Fatima is a particularly significant place for this Pope," said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi on Tuesday, noting that it was also a destination for two former Popes. The Holy Father has a thorough knowledge of the history of the Marian sanctuary, he added.
Fr. Lombardi held a press conference at the Vatican to prepare the media for the Pope's next trip out of the Vatican. He will be visiting Portugal from May 11-14.
The spokesman referred to the Pope's stop in Fatima on May 13 as the highlight and "heart" of the upcoming four-day trip to Portugal, according to Vatican Radio. But, he pointed out, Benedict XVI will not be the first Pope to visit the Marian shrine.
Two other Pontiffs have been to Fatima. In 1967, the sanctuary hosted Paul VI, and John Paul II visited in 1982, 1991 and 2000, at which time the visionaries Jacinta and Francesco were beatified.
The Portuguese shrine is not unfamiliar to Pope Benedict, since as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger extensively studied the message of Fatima. Fr. Lombardi said on Tuesday that the Pope has been involved with history of the Marian sanctuary in a "very deep, personal way."
It was him, for example, who was called upon to give a theological perspective when the third secret of Fatima was made public in 2000.
The Vatican spokesman said that the Holy Father will also deliver an intense message during his Fatima visit. Upon his arrival at the sanctuary on May 12, he will remember John Paul II and the 29th anniversary of the assassination attempt that nearly took his life on May 13, 1981.
This visit marks the Holy Father's 15th Apostolic Journey abroad in his five years and is his first to Portugal as Pope.
During today's general audience, the Holy Father greeted the people of Portugal in their language, telling them that he will be there this coming weekend at the invitation of the president of the nation and the episcopal conference.
He said he was "happy to be able to visit the 'land of Holy Mary'" on the 10th anniversary of the beatification of the shepherd children.
According to Portuguese press reports, local police are planning for a cumulative total of 450,000 people at the celebrations in Lisbon, Fatima and Portugal during the four-day visit.