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.
Unproven Healing Effects
"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.
'I Think I Feel More Strength'
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.
"I call right away the ambulance, of course, when he get sick and he is mad on me because he [wanted to be] dead," she said. Annie's husband started beating her. She's his caregiver. So VGZ brought her to Lourdes. After three emotional days in Lourdes Annie said, "I think I feel more strength for to go on with my life."
"That happens to thousands of people when they come," Father Moran said. "And it's not a cynical way of saying, 'Well, you weren't cured but you got something else.' It's helping people to live with what they're living with."
Father Moran shepherds the English-speaking pilgrims who come to Lourdes. This year 10 million pilgrims from 170 countries are expected to visit the picturesque spot to pray and mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions.
But has Lourdes become a commercial tourist attraction? Downtown there are more than 300 hotels, countless gift shops with glowing neon lights and stacks of Virgin Marys, as well as bustling cafes and bars.
"People have to get fed. It's not angels that are coming here," Father Moran said. "Human beings that need to be fed, they want to have a drink, they want to have a coffee, to celebrate, have a beer, glass of wine, or whatever."
Camaraderie and a feeling of being taken care of is part of what VGZ's clients want and get from this. Although it isn't entirely altruistic. The pilgrimages do generate good publicity. It looks like good business.
"Most of the people go back better than they came here, so nothing wrong with that," Hans van den Heuvel told me the morning after he took part in a candle-lit procession to the basilica. "On the contrary, I think that's perfect."
And Hans raises an interesting point: If pilgrims really do feel better after visiting the grotto, then as he says, "The insurance company will have to pay less for a short while, but maybe they live longer and then they have to pay more."