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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 February 2008, 12:07 GMT
The challenge of finding peace in Lourdes
By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Lourdes

Lourdes is a massive Roman Catholic pilgrimage site with more hotels than any other French city, except Paris.

It reminded me of my father's attic - small, overcrowded, fusty, and so stuffed full of junk that the minute I entered I used to panic, desperate to get out again.

Statue of St Bernadette, founder of the Lourdes sanctuary
Bernadette Soubirous founded the sanctuary 150 years ago

So, when I arrived at my very tired-looking hotel, which appeared to be perfumed by the socks of last season's pilgrims and saw its lobby, packed full of gaudy Virgin Mary memorabilia, you will forgive me when the words "Good God!" escaped my lips, and not in any laudatory way.

When I had recovered from my temporary crisis of faith, I set off down the steep hill towards the famous Lourdes shrine.

I had come early in the pilgrimage calendar and almost every shop and hotel I passed was still boarded up.

All, that is, except the souvenir shops which were very much open for business.

Their shelves were full of wonders: Virgin Mother statues arranged in height order from miniature to monster, Holy Mother cigarette lighters and ashtrays, poster-sized holograms which, according to the angle they were tilted at, showed either the bearded Jesus or the fresh-faced Mary.

Unfortunately the quality was not entirely consistent and I am sorry to say that in some of the holograms Mary had a permanent five o'clock shadow.

Surely the "magic of Lourdes" - that was the phrase used by so many people I knew who had come here - had to be more than this.

Crutches of the cured

The fame of Lourdes, of course, is based on the magic of miracles.

In every chapel or church I visited the walls were engraved with stone plaques saying things like "Thank you, Mother Mary, for giving me back my sight" or "Thank you for saving my son from ruin".

The shrine at Lourdes
You cannot prove a miracle and in this day and age everyone needs proof to believe
Patrick Thellier, Catholic doctor

The ceiling of the famous grotto where Bernadette was shown the hidden source by an apparition of the Holy Virgin used to be fringed with the crutches of the cured.

Today, they have been removed.

Perhaps 21st-Century pilgrims no longer find this kind of faith very palatable.

I suggested this to Patrick Thellier, the Catholic doctor employed in Lourdes by the Church to verify so-called miracle cures.

He rubbed his temples vigorously in the manner of a man who is relentlessly tortured by his own brain activity.

"It is a constant balancing act between faith and science for me," he said.

"I know that I see patients to whom something inexplicable and remarkable has happened, but how can I prove scientifically to other doctors that a miracle has been performed?

"You cannot prove a miracle and, in this day and age, everyone needs proof to believe."

Searching for a miracle

Today's acknowledged miracle recipients are few and far between.

The last was in 1987 and, in his 10 years working here, Dr Thellier has never confirmed a case himself.

I asked him what he does if someone comes to him clearly sick but convinced they are cured. He immediately lifts his hands to his face as if to shield himself from the question.

Emma Jane Kirby lighting a candle
Lourdes is a place where the sick don't just count. They come first
Father Bob, British priest

"Don't," he said. "It's pitiful. Oh God, it's pitiful."

Later, at the reciting of the rosary at the grotto, I met a young Austrian woman who told me she was seriously ill.

She was lighting candle after candle and filling several large bottles with holy water.

"I have come to ask Him to look after me," she said, desperately searching my eyes for encouragement.

"I need to get better. I need the miracle."

A few paces behind her a man in a tattered jacket was on his knees before the statue of the Virgin Mary, his face screwed up into a silent scream of anguish.

I told one of the visiting British priests, Father Bob - who had come with Peggy, one of his elderly and terminally ill parishioners - how uncomfortable I felt witnessing such scenes of despair.

Lighting a candle

Father Bob, a large and jolly Welshman and self-confessed devotee of Lourdes, threw back his head and laughed.

"Don't you worry about them," he said. "This is their home. Lourdes is a place where the sick don't just count. They come first."

He jiggled Peggy's wheelchair.

"Isn't that what I always say, Peggy? If you want the front pew at mass, get a wheelchair and you'll be guaranteed the best seat in the house! Anyway, Peggy's not come for a miracle. She has just come to find peace."

Father Bob suggested I might find peace in Lourdes if I visited the grotto after dark, long after the tacky souvenir shops had closed.

So, that night, I sat quietly for a while before the shrine and thought about miracles.

Before I left I lit a candle for the sick Austrian woman.

You just never know.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 9 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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