Business is booming at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes, with an unprecedented 7 million visitors expected in the coming year. John Lichfield travels to the town and asks what really draws people there: faith or superstition?
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The Independent Culture
RANDOM CANDLE burning is strictly forbidden in Lourdes. Each candle must be placed in the open air in one of 22 altars which look like market stalls on wheels. The altars glow day and night, a few steps from the cave where a 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw 18 visions of the Virgin Mary between February and July 1858.

When I first came across the outdoor candle shelters on a dark November afternoon, they were glowing like bonfires. A freezing wind was blowing from the Pyrenees. The hundreds of candles inside the blackened metal frames had been knocked against one another and fused into bizarre, inappropriately demonic-looking structures, like details from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch.

Lourdes claims to consume more candles than any other town on earth: 700 tonnes of them a year, or nearly two tonnes a day. In some of the shops in the town you can purchase candles the size of ground-to-air missiles which will burn for days. They cost 1,100 francs (pounds 110) each. In the sanctuaire - the sprawling, grey campus which has grown up around the grotto - three more modest sizes of candles are on official offer: a large candle about 3ft tall at pounds 4.80, a medium-sized candle at pounds 3.20 or a bargain candle at pounds 1.30.

In the sanctuaire no one has to pay anything; everything is left to the generosity and honesty of the pilgrim. The money goes to a good cause: improving the reception areas for the sick and disabled which stand all around. Any currency is accepted. The sign by the self-service candle depository says that lighting a candle "extends your prayer". The implication seems to be that the larger the candle you buy, the longer your prayers will last and the more effective will be your petition to God (although the keepers of the sanctuaire insist that the money and size is infinitely less important than the faith of the pilgrim).

On my first visit, two of the candle shelters were being cleaned by six workers from the services techniques of the sanctuaire. One man was hosing them down with boiling water. The others stepped forward occasionally and scraped the shelters with long spades shaped like spoons. Then they tossed the remains of the candles into grey, plastic wheely bins. Used prayers.

Lourdes, a small, ugly town in a pleasant valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has more visitors than Egypt. It has more pilgrims than Mecca - something like 6 million people a year, a 25 per cent increase in the last decade. Apart from Paris, Lourdes has more hotels, and sends more postcards than any other town in France (270 hotels housing 28,000 beds, double the population of the town itself).

In the coming year, some of these records will be shattered. For the Christian jubilee of the year 2000, Lourdes is anticipating even more visitors than usual. It is expected that 7 million people will visit the town of 15,000. Proportionally, this is the equivalent of London receiving 3 billion visitors a year.

All sites of Christian pilgrimage in Europe are booming, but Lourdes is booming most. Paradoxically so. Church attendances are falling in many Catholic countries and they are plummeting in France. Young people, especially, are turning away from formal worship and the structures, and strictures, of the church. Priestly vocations in France, 1,000 a year in the 1950s, have fallen to less than 100 a year. France is so short of priests that hundreds of rural churches are boarded up. Country people sometimes have to travel 20 or 30 miles to mass.

At the same time, pilgrimages to Lourdes - especially by young people and especially by young French people - are flourishing. One attraction, of course, is obvious. Miracles occur in Lourdes. There have been 66 officially accepted miraculous cures of the incurable in the last 141 years and around 6,000 claimed cures which the church declines to accept as official miracles. However, only one in 10 of the people who come to Lourdes are incurably sick or disabled; fewer than a fifth of the town's visitors come in large, organised groups of the sick and their relatives and helpers. While their numbers are also rising it is the numbers of healthy pilgrims, or tourists, that are growing most rapidly. Why?

Everything I say about Lourdes must be prefaced by an admission: I am a non-practising, non-believing, half-Jewish Catholic. As a non-believing person, I confess that I found Lourdes mostly bewildering and occasionally offensive. Just before I went there, we were having dinner with a group of Parisian friends, who are devoutly Catholic. My wife let it slip that I was going to Lourdes. Their faces dropped. "You must not judge Lourdes by what you see," said Herve. "You must try to see it with interior eyes, not exterior ones." I did my best to see Lourdes with interior eyes but I failed. I did my best, also, to see Lourdes through the borrowed interior eyes of others. Their explanation comes a little later.

LOURDES, THE town, as opposed to the sanctuaire, reminded me of another one-industry town, Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, even the taxis have fruit-machines; in Lourdes, there are entire streets in which every shop sells religious - or rather superstitious - tat. Las Vegas began with nothing save a few shacks in the Nevada desert and transformed itself into the world capital of vulgarity, a place of innocent wickedness. Lourdes began with something beautiful - 18 apparitions to a peasant girl in a cave by a boulder-strewn river - and turned itself (if you are not a believer) into something hideous; the world capital of kitsch: a town which (if you are a believer) offers the world hope, but looked at another way, seems to live on credulity and suffering.

Le Palais du Rosoire, one of the bigger shops, is a kind of Toys-R-Us of kitsch. Once through the door of the "Rosary Palace", you are blinded by electric, pastel shades of pink and blue. There are a dozen sizes of plastic madonnas with neon haloes; musical grottoes, which sing "Ave Maria"; Saint Bernadette cigarette lighters (give yourself cancer and then try to cure it?); Saint Bernadette snow-shaker paperweights.

Another mini-supermarket calls itself the Alliance Catholique and has a plaque on the wall stating that it is, "by appointment, a purveyor of religious materials" to the Vatican. What, one wonders, does His Holiness want with a Saint Bernadette egg and spoon set? On the high shelves there was an assortment of madonnas, ranging in price from pounds 20 to pounds 250. One, standing alone, carried a sign which proclaimed it to be a "vierge miraculeuse" (miraculous virgin). The price tag was 4,940 francs - nearly pounds 500.

A shop assistant came up to me. Why, I asked, was that statuette so much more expensive than the others? "It is made by hand," he said. I pointed out that it also claimed to be "miraculous": didn't the label - and the price - give the impression that this object could deliver miracles? No, he said, getting a little annoyed, it was more expensive than the others because it was made by hand.

The commercialisation of the miracle and message of Lourdes began almost as soon as the apparitions ended. In his documentary novel Lourdes, published in 1898 - still one of the best pieces of reportage on the town ever written - Emile Zola has his hero, Pierre, a doubting priest, declare Lourdes to be a "place of abomination and damnation, transformed into a vast bazaar, where everything is for sale, including masses and souls".

The Catholic Church and the "sanctuary" have purified their act since then. The town has not. Officials of the sanctuaire disclaim any responsibility for the crass and ugly commercialism which starts just beyond its boundaries. If people did not buy this stuff, they say, the shops could not exist. It is not for us to dictate public taste.

This is a strange argument for them to use. The Catholic Church goes to great lengths in its theology - even in its rigorous definition of a Lourdes miracle - to try to make the distinction between superstition and faith. Why allow streets full of superstitious tat to blur the distinction? No company - be it a football club or a charitable organisation - would allow the merchandising of its image to be taken out of its control and cheapened and betrayed in this way. It seemed to me that the shops polluted the atmosphere of the sanctuaire just as surely as if they had been intensive pig farms, just beyond its boundaries.

Part of my problem, I was told, was that I had come to Lourdes too late in the year. Organised pilgrimages, which take place from Easter through to October, had ended: without the legions of wheelchairs in the streets, without the twice-daily processions of white-and-gold robed priests in the sanctuary, the shops had taken on too great an importance in my mind. Perhaps. The sanctuary, I am sure, seems quite different when the main esplanade is filled with wheelchairs and people in beds and hundreds of young volunteers. Seen in November, though, it has a moving stillness, especially the grotto itself - some even say that it is the best time of all to come to Lourdes.

Whatever the season, the buildings of the sanctuaire are a crushing disappointment to anyone expecting a Chartres or a Notre Dame. The site suffers from having been developed, piece-meal, and in a great hurry, by late 19th- century and 20th-century architects, with functional purposes, and large crowds, in mind. In one of the messages she brought from the Virgin Mary, Bernadette said that the mother of Christ told her to ask "the priests" to build a chapel on the site. What she got was a religious industrial estate.

The original basilica, which resembles a dull 19th- century parish church, was built on the rock above the grotto. It was declared inadequate within 20 years. A second basilica, in the Byzantine style, was built in front of and below it. On either side there are vast, sloping viaducts, in the shape of a heart, to allow wheelchairs and processions of priests easy access to the upper basilica. The overall effect is more dispiriting than spiritual: something like Sleeping Beauty's castle in Disney World or the Mormon cathedral in Salt Lake City, all spikes and spires and jumbled architectural fashions.

The mosaic above the altar in the lower basilica (built in the 1880s) is a stunning piece of kitsch in its own right. A vast madonna looks down at you with a very modern face and a condescending smile, like a flight attendant about to deliver your peanuts. She is surrounded by six rainbows of cherubs in garish, jelly-baby shades.

BUT WHAT if you see Lourdes with interior eyes? I was struck by an article, published two years ago in the Times, by Sue Corrigan, the mother of a severely handicapped child, who went to Lourdes out of curiosity, expecting, perhaps, to be disgusted or disappointed. Instead she found that the place was redeemed by the warmth and kindness of the sanctuary staff, the volunteers and her fellow pilgrims. "The sick and disabled are revered as the most precious of God's children, treated with a kindness and a generosity of spirit that makes them feel extraordinarily valued and worthwhile ... Seen and experienced in this light, Lourdes ceases to be a place of tacky shops and human misery and instead becomes a place of shining goodness, idealism and joy."

As a teenager, my sister-in-law worked as a volunteer with the sick in Lourdes. She remembers starting her stay with the giggling discovery that elderly Italian women wear their knickers outside their tights. She recalls leaving with the moving discovery that Lourdes is not a crushing disappointment for those tens of thousands of the sick and disabled who leave without a miracle cure. Lourdes may not end, or make sense of, their suffering, she found, but it does give them new resources of patience and spiritual energy.

Several of the people I met who work in the sanctuaire described this feeling as the true spirit and message of Lourdes - a "daily miracle" which is perhaps more important than the occasional miracle cure. Elizabeth Dunphy, 32, a half-Irish Frenchwoman, came first as a volunteer and returned as a full-time youth worker. "There is an intensity of spirit here which you cannot easily find elsewhere. Whether you come here as an isolated Christian, as I did, or even as someone who does not believe, you risk discovering a strange fact: `I am not alone. We are together. God is with us.' Many people are converted here but also many people, like me, who regarded themselves as believers, find out here what it really means to believe, how to make belief a part of your life."

Bruno Didier, an earnest young man who used to be a local journalist, is a communications officer for the sanctuaire. It was his self-appointed task, patiently borne, to show me around the sanctuary and answer my pagan questions. I suggested that the spirit of Lourdes was the spirit of the people who come to Lourdes: something self-generated. You could probably achieve the same effect if you assembled the same people in Clermont Ferrand or Stoke- on-Trent.

No, he said, the spirit came partly from the people, partly from the place. He, like many in the sanctuary, has been struck by the work of the British charities who bring the sick on pilgrimages to Lourdes, and especially the Handicapped Children's Pilgrimage Trust. He recalled an incident this summer in which he had been kissed by a young West Indian boy of six or seven on an HCPT pilgrimage. "If you had seen the smile on that child's face, you would know what I mean when I say that there is a spirituality here, an intense feeling, which cannot just come with the people who come here. Something brings them here in the first place."

I had felt a great deal of spirituality in the people of the sanctuary; but little in the stones of Lourdes, save the grotto itself. Even there you have to concentrate hard to imagine how it must have looked in Bernadette's time. Half the cave of 141 years ago, as shown in old photographs, has disappeared beneath a boardwalk constructed alongside the river Gave. There is a natural alcove where the Virgin appeared to Bernadette, wearing white robes with a blue sash. The alcove now contains a large statue of the Virgin, wearing white robes and a blue sash, an intrusion so literal as to blot out private contemplation.

Hanging on a rusty wire there are six tattered crutches, the symbolic survivors of the tens of thousands of crutches and sticks which were once piled into the cave by pilgrims. In old pictures, the grotto looks like a left-luggage office. Now, mercifully, the cave has been cleared. Pilgrims are encouraged to walk around and rub their hands on the wall, which has been brought to a fine polish by the touch of millions of fingers. Faith or superstition?

I was drawn back to the grotto several times. On my second visit, I watched a man in his 40s in a black leather zip-up jacket and black jeans. He had a brutal kind of face, like the faces which look down on you from lorry cabs on French motorways. He was muttering a prayer to himself and remained, standing, entranced for many minutes. I was astonished by his concentration. Did he really believe that the Virgin had appeared here to a little girl 141 years before? What would it be like to believe that?

A little later, as I was lurking near the candle shelters, I saw the same man. He was lighting one of the smaller candles. He smiled a pale kind of smile. I explained why I was there. He explained why he was there. He was from a town in northern France. His 11-year-old daughter had a form of leukaemia. She was too sick, mostly from her treatment, to come to Lourdes herself. He had come to say a prayer for her.

He was a believer but not a regular church attender. Did he believe that Virgin Mary had appeared here? Yes. Did he believe that his daughter might be cured? He held his hands apart in a helpless gesture. "I sometimes buy a lottery ticket but I don't really expect to win. It seemed wrong not to come here and try. It made my wife and daughter feel better when they knew I was coming. And being here has made me feel stronger. Whatever happens to us."

THERE WERE many reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in the 19th century, including several in France in the years just before 1858. None of the others are much remembered. In some cases the people who made the dangerous claim of a direct dialogue with Heaven were persecuted. The Church fiercely defended its official and special relationship with God. Lourdes was different almost from the beginning, for several reasons.

On 11 February 1858, Bernadette was collecting wood and dried bones along the northern bank of the Gave when she saw a beautiful lady in white in the filthy cave, known locally as the "Pigsty".

Strange and unexplained cures began to occur. Bernadette charmed her Church and state interrogators with her sincerity. Large crowds gathered so that, by the time of her 15th vision, there were 20,000 people watching the cave. Only Bernadette saw the small, white apparition of the Virgin.

On the 16th apparition, Bernadette asked the lady's name. She reported that she had replied, in the Pyrenean dialect, which was the only language the girl spoke: "Que soy era immaculada counceptiou" ("I am the immaculate conception").

This was an extraordinary reply. The peculiarly Roman Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception - not only Jesus but also Mary had been conceived without sin (ie without sex) - had been declared part of the teaching of the church only two years earlier. How could an illiterate peasant girl have ever heard the phrase?

Far from being a challenge to Church authority, as most visions were deemed to be, Bernadette's message from the Virgin seemed to confirm the infallibility of Rome. A Church commission was set up to study the validity of her claims and the "miracles" which were occurring. It took four years to reach its decision but, in the meantime, the local bishop cannily bought up, on behalf of the Church, the cave site and all the surrounding land. This might today be described as "insider dealing".

Bernadette's apparitions had asked for a chapel and for "processions". The lady had ordered her to drink from the dirty spring in the cave. She had not made any mention of miracle cures but the cures, which began with a paralysed woman recovering the use of her limbs the month after the first apparition, kept happening. Money poured in from all over the world. Senior Church authorities brutally shunted aside the local priest, who had been Bernadette's fiercest critic and then warmest champion, and rapidly began the ostentatious development of the site.

Lourdes, both the religious site and the town, boomed. Initially, claims of miracles, running at 15 a year, were not carefully examined. In the second half of the 19th century, the Church - and faith itself - were in a fiercely political struggle with the Republican, anti-church tradition in France. Lourdes was, literally, a Godsend.

Bernadette herself, constantly sick with asthma, and forced to hide from the crowds already besieging Lourdes, agreed to go into a convent in Nevers, 400 miles to the north. According to one account, she was humiliated and treated as a skivvy by the other more educated nuns. She died there in 1866 and was declared a saint in 1933.

FRANcOIS DEHAINE is the director general of the organisation which runs the sanctuary at Lourdes. He is a jovial, thoughtful layman, who says that he prefers not to drive through Lourdes, the town. "There is nothing much we can do. They are free to sell what they like. But we do try to channel the wholesalers in certain directions. Without that, I can assure you, you'd see things which were 10 times worse."

I asked Dehaine to try to explain two things. First, why are people - and especially young people - pouring into Lourdes but not into church? Secondly, where does faith end and superstition begin? He may dislike the excesses of the kitsch in the shops, but how is that different, in the end, from candles which "extend prayers", or touching and kissing the wall of Bernadette's grotto?

On the first point, Dehaine admits that there is an "enormous paradox" and one the Church - and the sanctuary - does try to wrestle with. He offers two, or three, possible explanations.

"In the sanctuary, here, people feel at liberty. No one is ever asked who they are, what they believe, what religion they belong to. You can come here and go to mass and take communion. But you can also come here and simply feel part of the spirit of the place and no one is going to complain."

"In these times, I think people value that sense of liberty. They don't necessarily want to feel part of a large, fixed organisation. They don't necessarily want to submit to the authority of the Church. At the same time, there is a great hunger for spirituality in the modern world. Here in Lourdes, you are inevitably confronted with strong emotions and strong feelings. You will always find someone who is worse off than you. You can find the joy that there is in humility and in doing something for, and with others."

Dehaine admits that, for some, it is a kind of "spiritual tourism". It is easier and more fun to come to Lourdes for a couple of days, or even become a volunteer for 18 days, than to interrupt the weekend to go to church on a Sunday. Others come to Lourdes and are changed forever.

"We are very conscious of this. We would like everyone who comes to Lourdes to take the spirit of the place away with them, to go away as a different person."

How many escape the net? He smiles. "Thousands and thousands of them."

On the second point - superstition versus faith - Dehaine is adamant. To offer a statuette of the virgin for sale at pounds 500 with the implied promise that it is, in itself, miraculous is an appeal to superstition. When pilgrims are asked to light candles, or drink water from the spring, or touch the rocks of the cave, they are doing so as outward signs of their faith. None of these things is magical in themselves; they have meaning only if the pilgrims have faith in God.

BEFORE I left Lourdes I went to the grotto for a final time to watch the pilgrims kissing and rubbing the stones. Were they doing so superstitiously or with faith? Were they being faithfully religious when doing this inside the sanctuaire and superstitious when buying aggravated kitsch outside?

The candles, huge and small, in the metal shelters were now flickering beautifully in the twilight. There were no more demonic wax shapes. Birds were flying in and out of the grotto. A half dozen pilgrims were praying quietly.

Emile Zola, gathering material for his great, rationalist, but by no means dismissive, book on Lourdes, put the pilgrimage fervour of the 1890s down to a kind of fin-de-siecle "boredom with the century" and "hunger for illusion". People felt "frantic" at having "greedily" consumed too much technology and science; they felt abandoned by their physical and spiritual leaders. Much of that sounds right for the 1990s. On his first visit to Lourdes, Zola also coined an aphorism which became famous: "I don't believe in miracles but I do believe in the human need to believe in miracles."


Only one in 10 visitors to Lourdes comes in search of a cure for terminal illness or disability (opposite).

Virgin Mary bottles being filled with Lourdes water (above)

Above, left to right: the basilicas at Lourdes; one of the many shops selling Catholic kitsch.

Left: some of the 700 tonnes of candles which are consumed by pilgrims each year

Clockwise from top left: the grotto where Bernadette saw her visions now houses a statue of the Virgin Mary; visitors with their friends and helpers; pilgrims touch and kiss the walls of the grotto

Above: buying rosary beads in the centre of Lourdes.

Right: some of the plentiful Catholic memorabilia available in the town