VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI, a bookish theologian, holds a deep-rooted interest in the popular cult of the Virgin Mary, which will be on display during his visit to the shrine of Fatima in Portugal.
"Contrary to what one could imagine, Benedict XVI has a very positive opinion of demonstrations of popular faith like the one you can see in Fatima," Vatican expert Sandro Magister told AFP.
The pope heads to Portugal on Tuesday to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the beatification of young shepherds who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary appear.
"Like his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict XVI is very pious with regards to Mary," French Cardinal Paul Poupard told AFP.
Several trips have already brought Benedict to sanctuaries devoted to the Virgin Mary, where he celebrated masses in front of thousands of faithful: Marizell in Austria, Loreto in Italy, Aparecida in Brasil, Altotting in Germany, the "house of Mary" in Turkey and Lourdes in France.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the pope - then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - dealt thoroughly with apparitions and miracles.
In 2000, John Paul II entrusted Ratzinger with writing a theological document on an aspect of the Virgin's six apparitions to three shepherds in Fatima between May 13 and October 13 in 1917.
The text dealt with what is known as the third secret of Fatima, which John Paul II believed to be a prophecy of the assassination attempt he survived on May 13 1981.
The three secrets of Fatima are visions and prophecies allegedly given by an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three young Portuguese shepherds.
"The pope's visit to Fatima is not a visit to any sanctuary dedicated to Mary, as it was in other trips," the pope's spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
"The pope dealt thoroughly with these events from the theological and spiritual point of view," he said.
Since the beginning of Benedict's papacy in 2005, references to the Virgin in his homilies have been on the rise.
Benedict "has often underscored the importance of Catholicism speaking to everyone, including the 'lost sheep,' Catholics who do not practice on a regular basis," Magister told AFP.
"These pilgrimage sites are a way to gather masses. It is not contradictory with his love of sciences and with his university experience," he added.
Benedict has also often shown appreciation for the simple and popular faith of Bavaria, the predominantly Catholic region in the south of Protestant Germany, where he was born.