Miracle in the Mountains

"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."

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