Friday, February 10, 2012


It is 154 years to the day that a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous, while out gathering firewood, saw an apparition of the Madonna in a cave called the grotte de Massabielle.

Since then the nearby town of Lourdes has grown into a major pilgrimage site for Catholics from all over the world. A million people flock there every year. At any one time the transient hotel population exceeds the number of residents by six to one.

Few people were convinced of Bernadette’s visions at the time; not even her own mother. In fact no one else saw anything and five months later the visitations ended as abruptly as they began. What swayed opinion at the time was a spring of water that appeared from a rock inside the cave; the water is now credited with miraculous powers of healing.

It is a curious story because ultimately Bernadette could not cure herself. She died in her thirties of tuberculosis of the bone, which ate away her right knee. 

photograph: Hugo Broeder
I went to Lourdes a few years ago. It is a picture postcard village nuzzling up to the skirts of the Pyrenees. Tendrils of mist cling to the lush valleys. From the railway station, a single street lined with bright-painted cottages leads to the town, though the effect is spoiled by a Golden Arches.

The Rosary Basilica dominates the valley. It looks like something Walt Disney would have drawn. If it seems kitsch, then the souvenir shops are just downright offensive. Everything comes with an apparition; there are apparition t-shirts, apparition key rings, apparition shot glasses, even glow-in-the-dark apparition rosary beads. I am not kidding.
photograph: jean-noel lafargue
On the main street I am startled by a hologram of Jesus winking at me from a shop window among the apparition snow domes and apparition thermometers. At one o’clock Mary appears briefly from an apparition cuckoo clock.

Praise the lord and pass the apparition.

photograph: Jean-Noel Lafargue
I sit on an old stone wall by the Gave and am rather more moved by the sight of hundreds of wheelchairs and gurneys being wheeled towards the shrine from the hospitals on the far side of the river. 

I make my way to the grotto myself. There’s a queue. Three diminutive nuns, dressed in navy blue and looking like little R2D2’s with moustaches, push in front of me. There is a lot of shoving here, as I imagine there will be trying to get into heaven.

Once used as a pigsty, the cave seems almost sterile now. The walls have been worn smooth by a million fingertips. The sacred pool is preserved under glass like a rare botanical specimen.

photograph: Emmanuel Brunner

I try to take it all in but a quick glimpse is all that I am allowed. The force of the people shoving from behind carries me through the cave like an offshore rip.

More remarkable to me is the less-visited Museum of Miracles. No less than 7,000 miracles have been claimed for Lourdes but only 66 have been recognized as such by the Church; their stories are enshrined here. The rules for having a miracle allowed by the Vatican are more complex than the offside rule in soccer so we won’t go into them here. But the investigation of all claims by a highly qualified panel of physicians is rigorous. 

Interesting fact; only 38 of these cases involved bathing in the Lourdes water, and six of those claiming miracles did not even go to Lourdes.

The most recent miracle was reported by Jean-Pierre Bely, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1972. By 1987 he was totally incapacitated. His description of his healing is particularly telling:  “The Lord cured my heart first and then my body.” 
photograph: DarreenVT

Delirzia Cirolli discovered a tumour on her knee in 1976. Doctors in Sicily told her she would die unless the leg was amputated. After she visited Lourdes her condition continued to deteriorate. But she steadfastly refused medical treatment and continued to pray, even when she was told she was dying; but then quite suddenly her condition reversed itself. She went on to become a nurse and have three children.

The most curious is miracle number fifty-four, Evasio Ganora, another Sicilian diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and told by doctors he had only a few months to live. He was taken to the waters in a wheelchair and there effected an almost instantaneous cure. Two years later he ran himself over with his own tractor and died. Explain that one to me.

photograph: mcxurxo

I am intrigued by the story of Bernadette. These sixty six examples may not prove her authenticity, but they certainly demonstrate the awesome power of faith, regardless of religion.

Lourdes is testament to our belief in the possibility of the impossible. Miracles clearly do happen, just not very often. But the laws we live by say they shouldn’t happen at all. So how did those sixty-six do it? Everyone will have a different answer.

How many of us allow for miracles or have had personal experience of one? Perhaps they are more common than we think. If nothing else, the visions of a child named Bernadette give us hope that in some mysterious way we are not alone.

'The Song of Bernadette' is sung by Jennifer Warnes; the lyrics are by the inimitable Leonard Cohen.