The faithful insist that miracles really do happen in the French mountains of Lourdes on the spot where, 150 years ago, a local girl called Bernadette said she saw an apparition in a cave.
"Up until the time of the apparition this was an extremely small, obscure village," explained Father Martin Moran as we stood in front of the basilica where Bernadette, and subsequently 18 others, reported seeing the apparition. When asked her name, the hazy figure reportedly replied, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Since then the sick, elderly, weary and just plain religious have flocked to Lourdes. Hans van den Heuvel came to Lourdes 12 years ago as a journalist covering a rather unusual group of Dutch pilgrims. This year he's back, part of that group.
"I have serious cancer," he told me while sipping a beer in one of Lourdes' many cafes. "It's pretty terminal, I'm afraid. I'm not even hoping to survive this cancer. But, of course, you never know!"
Hans is traveling with other clients of the Dutch medical insurance company VGZ. We joined them at Eindhoven Airport at 6:30 a.m. one Wednesday as they checked in for an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage. The insurance company chartered the jet. The helpers were all volunteers, many of them employees of VGZ.
"The first time I heard about it, I thought, 'God, that's incredible!' You know, quite incredible," spluttered Father Moran when I mentioned the VGZ pilgrimage. "I think it's looking at a person in a very holistic way, that this is part of a person's betterment. It's not just about the physical."
But why does VGZ do this? It costs the company nearly $400,000 a year.
"The primary reason is to give real, genuine attention to people who need it most," said Erik Lelieveld, the company's spokesman and volunteer wheelchair-pusher on this trip. "It's not a mathematical thing," explained Lelieveld. "It's not a thing where you can scientifically prove where effectively it reduces costs of health care. It has a salutary effect on people, a sort of healing effect."
And, according to the Catholic Church, miracles do happen in Lourdes. A young Italian visitor, Delizia Cirolli, claimed she was cured of bone cancer after a visit in 1976. Jean-Pierre Bely allegedly was cured of multiple sclerosis in 1987. These are both church-sanctioned miracles.
"To date there's only been 67," Father Moran told me. "Although I would say that unofficially there have been far, far more than that."
One of the VGZ group is a sprightly 76-year-old named Goke Jacobs-Cools. She first came to Lourdes in 1964. "I was married for six years and I had no children, so I went to Lourdes," she told me one afternoon. "And in 1965 I got my daughter."
This time, both she and the other pilgrims are looking for hope and strength, not miracles.
"By doing this, you feel a little better," said Jose van Diesen who suffers from chronic arthritis. She says that when she goes home, perhaps she won't need so much treatment.
One of the VGZ pilgrims who definitely can't be cured is Annie Schoemann-Smits: She isn't sick. Two years ago it was her husband who suffered a massive stroke.