The business of miracle-working

When the Pope arrives in Lourdes today, he will be greeted in equal numbers by pilgrims and purveyors of plastic iconography. Alex Duval Smith asks if commerce has overtaken religion in France's most holy town
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The Independent Online

Jacqueline Faron believes in miracles. A volunteer receptionist at the 900-bed Notre Dame guesthouse where Pope John Paul II will sleep tonight, she has never seen a miraculous cure. But she has heard of many. "There have only been 66 officially recognised miracle cures at Lourdes - the Church is very cautious about proclaiming them these days - but I don't see why the Pope could not be the 67th," she said.

This morning, after being greeted amid tight security by President Jacques Chirac at Tarbes airport, the much-travelled but frail 84-year-old Pope - on only his second trip outside Italy this year - will arrive by Popemobile at Bernadette's cave. Half an hour later, after drinking its water, he will be wheeled to his room in the guesthouse opposite, for a rest.

''We have cleared the fourth and fifth floors for him,'' said Mrs Faron. "This is not a hospital - we assume he brings one of those with him - but it is a very comfortable guesthouse indeed." From the lobby, panoramic lifts convey guests to the rooms. Outside, on the eve of the Pope's arrival, there is a queue of wheelchairs waiting for the ride.

Fatima Namari, 78, who has a French Scout at her disposal to take her on rickshaw trips around town, arrived in Lourdes on Wednesday. "Two TGV trains full of patients brought us from Paris yesterday. I have a weak heart and, for me, this is quite wonderful. I booked my trip for Assumption weekend long before we knew that the Pope was coming. I do believe people are cured in Lourdes but I am here simply to pay homage to Our Lady," she said.

Every year, six million saintly and sickly people travel to this town in the Pyrenees which was once small - and still only has a permanent population of 15,000 people - but now has 270 hotels and is second only to Paris in terms of the number of tourist beds available. The town's tourist office says that visitors spend about €350m (£200m) in Lourdes every year.

Outside the so-called Sanctuaries area - which is in the centre of Lourdes and includes the cave and three basilicas - the streets are decorated in bunting in the colours of the Holy See, yellow, blue and white. Underneath it, a fairly particular cross-section of society is represented: people in wheelchairs and rickshaws vying for space with nuns and monks and medical staff in white coats pushing empty hospital beds or drip-stands.

The souvenirs on sale in more than 200 shops lining the streets of Lourdes prove that the Virgin is no guardian against bad taste. Mary-shaped plastic bottles are on sale for 50c and a five-litre empty jerrycan for Lourdes water costs €3.50. The Lourdes candle factory - owned by the family of the French Health Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy - has been in top gear in the past few weeks and the racks of the souvenir shops are filled with its products.

Monique Sandwidi, aged 50, said shopping was an important part of her visit with her 80-year-old West African mother, Blanche. "Back in Burkina Faso they are very excited about the souvenirs we will take back - Lourdes water, of course, and medallions of the Virgin. I came here with €250 that was given to me by a friend so I would buy her a chest-high plaster statue of Mary. We have just come from the factory and that statue is now being freighted to Paris and onwards to Burkina Faso," she said.

So commercial has Lourdes become that the basilicas in the town cannot cope with the number of dedication masses bought by pilgrims while they are here. The masses - which cost €17 - are subcontracted to churches in the Third World.

A volunteer, Marie-Astrid Bouyeure, a 16-year-old student from Rouen who was pulling a rickshaw containing an elderly man from Nantes, was unfazed by the commercial aspect of Lourdes. "I have come here every year with my parents since I was little and, to be honest, I do not even notice the shops. If you're not here for the shops, they do not bother you. The Lourdes water, in the taps by the cave, is free and there is nothing to stop people from just filling up an empty Evian bottle," she said.

Tomorrow, on a lawn by the Notre-Dame guesthouse, the Pope is due to officiate at an open-air mass to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption - a festival which was established in 1850 and marking the Virgin Mary's ascent into Heaven. A total of 300,000 communion wafers have been ordered for that service alone.

This year, Roman Catholics are celebrating 150 years since the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. The dogma - a rule of faith proclaimed by the Vatican - is considered to have been confirmed in Lourdes between February and July 1858 when 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw 18 apparitions of the Virgin in a cave.

When Bernadette told Church officials that, on her 16th apparition, the figure had said, ''I am the Immaculate Conception'' they believed her on the grounds that she was a simple country girl who could not have heard of the new dogma, proclaimed in Rome only four years earlier.

The dogma affirms that Mary was born in a state of grace, never to be tempted by original sin. Soon after the Church decided that Bernadette was telling the truth, pilgrims started to travel to Lourdes to drink the water in the cave. By the end of the 19th century, a total of seven miracle cures had been proclaimed.

John Paul II - who is on his second papal pilgrimage to Lourdes - believes the hand of Mary deflected the bullets of his would-be assassin, the Turkish gunman Mehemet Ali Agca, in St Peter's Square 1981.

According to his media team, Pope John Paul II believes Lourdes to be blessed with a "special grace" among shrines to Mary - of which he has visited about 500 - and it is unsurprising that he should wish to travel here for possibly his last pilgrimage, given the advanced state of his Parkinson's disease.

A year ago, the Pope became confined to a wheelchair, and journalists covering the Vatican report that the Popemobile has had to be adapted because he is now incontinent. They say the biggest health risk currently faced by the Pope is internal haemorrhaging or a pulmonary embolism, as his illness makes it increasingly difficult for him to draw breath. His doctor, 79-year-old Renato Buzzonetti, is travelling with him, as well as 35 other medical staff.

"This is a private pilgrimage, not a state visit," said Mgr Jacques Perrier, a French priest who invited the Pope in January but had to wait until June for doctors to confirm that he would be well enough to travel. "His entourage seems confident that he will be fine. He is handicapped by his illness but he is still very clear-headed and strong-willed. He has always managed to maintain a strong private strain to his ministry and I knew that he would want, if he could, to spend some time, quietly and in solitude, in the cave."

Before he became Pope, Karol Wojtyla's first trip to western Europe in 1947 was marked by a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, he has been to France and its overseas territories eight times. He was last at Lourdes in 1983 and on that occasion a local group of anarchists blew up a statue of Pontius Pilate a few days before his arrival.

France is one of the more troublesome members of the Pope's flock and the Vatican's relations with Paris have been particularly strained this year. President Chirac, who is a low-key but practising Roman Catholic, was strongly criticised by Rome earlier this year for his stand against including any mention of Christian heritage in the new European constitution. The Vatican has also been openly critical of French government moves this year to reaffirm the country's constitutionally non-religious status by banning displays of religious affiliation - Muslim headscarves but also large Christian crosses - in state schools.

The affiliation of Lourdes is very clear and even though volunteers say they have seen both Muslims and Buddhist pilgrims pass through, these are nowhere to be seen on Assumption weekend.

Dr Patrick Theillier, the man employed by the Church to vet alleged miracles at Lourdes, confirms that people of many faiths come to the town. "I have several files of Muslims who have shown credible evidence of having been healed here. But there is no way the Church is going recognise cases of non-Catholics who have been cured," he said.

The plaque on the office door of Dr Theillier, a 60-year-old GP, reads: Medical Bureau (declarations of healings). Pilgrims are expected to report improvements in their condition to him. They are then kept on file for several years before being assessed by an international medical committee and, ultimately, the Vatican. The last miracle recovery - the 66th - was recognised in 1999 when a French multiple sclerosis sufferer, Jean-Pierre Bély, was deemed to have been cured, four days after a trip to Lourdes 12 years earlier.

Statistically, the cures have favoured the French (55 of the cases), women (eight out of 10 cases) and religious or the clergy (11 cases).

Dr Theillier, who was a homoeopath and acupuncturist before training in mainstream medicine and working in Morocco, sees two or three people every day who wish to report that they have been miraculously healed. "It becomes a counselling job," said Dr Theillier, who has been employed at Lourdes since 1998. "The vast majority of people who come to see me are not healed and are actually seriously ill. Recently I saw a 65-year-old man, who was extremely devout, but in advanced stages of lung cancer. He assured me he had been cured but, just looking at him, I could tell he was not.

"There are cases of spontaneous remission and I do believe that faith can heal. In fact, as a doctor, one does not have to be at Lourdes to come across patients who are fatally ill but who manage to survive for several years. The phenomenon of spontaneous remission exists everywhere but it is pushed to its ultimate degree here at Lourdes," he said.

As for the chances of a cure for the pontiff, Dr Theillier does not rate his chances higher than anyone else's. "You have to be careful. I do not believe in magic. But Lourdes is important to people. It is a place where people can feel they are living their faith. There is nothing wrong with that if it helps people,'' he said.