On a recent holiday to the South of France, on our way back from the Atlantic Coast near Spain, we called in at Lourdes. Although I had heard stories about pilgrims coming to take the miraculous waters with their much claimed curative properties, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.
The undoubted spectacular setting of a valley with a backdrop of picturesque castle, a thronging crowd of religious pilgrims, many in wheelchairs, some blind, many hobbling with difficulty, many nuns, priests and tour groups – a veritable forest of crosses, each commemorating a recent pilgrim mission group, and a grand church building, religious centres and grottoes combined to build the atmosphere.
Unfortunately the sceptic in me found it hard not to notice the blatant commercialisation. My impressions were not helped by the sight of a nun striding along the street puffing on a cigarette. A long street packed with garish plastic fake statuettes, pink rosaries, crosses,numerous postcards, and thousands of plastic bottles of Holy Water for sale … and I found myself wondering what Jesus who reacted in fury to the selling of religious items in the courtyard of the Temple, might have made of the thousands upon thousands of items for sale.
I remembered reading somewhere that over the last 150 years the huge wave of hopeful sick coming daily in the hope of cure, had 67 cases of cure recognised by the Church but since there were obviously many more potential hopeful sick than that in the crowds I could see on this one Sunday afternoon it crossed my mind that there must be an incredible number of those about to be deeply disappointed. Despite the numerous wheel chairs coming too and fro – none that I could see were empty on the return journey.
When I read the history of the way in which the curative miracles were originally established, more worrying thoughts occured.
On February 11th 1858, a young asthmatic girl, Bernadette Soubirius, went with her sister and a friend to look for firewood.. As she was frail and sickly, they left her on one bank of the river, where she then found a cave hidden in the bushes, and in the cave a spring of clear water. According to Bernadette, a young woman appeared to her, “surrounded by light, and looked at me and smiled”.This was the first of seventeen or possible eighteen visions Bernadette claims to have had, although it was not until the sixteenth that the lady identified herself as ‘the Immaculate Conception’, in other words, the Virgin Mary.
There is no doubt that the young woman Bernadette was deeply moved by the experiences and she herself made absolutely no attempt to benefit from the experience, preferring to enter Holy orders first as a noviate and then as nun and in effect withdrawing from the limelight. When it comes to the then emerging rumours of the cures we might remember that the young Bernadette herself totally dismissed the idea as unfounded. Bernadette, questioned by an English tourist in April 1859, flatly denied such miracles, responding, “There’s no truth in that at all”. We should also note that despite being a sufferer from TB and asthma there was no indication that Bernadette herself was cured and she appeared to have died in 1879 at the comparatively young age of 35.
Again I confess my cynicism in that I note that of the Catholic Churches registered 67 certified cures (the most recent in 2005)by far the biggest number were cures for TB, which happen from time to time without recourse to miracle. As has been stated before: many walking sticks were left beside the pool but no artificial legs. If a hospital dealing with thousands upon thousands of cases over 150 years were to claim to be certain of only 67 cures, it would not be high on my list of places to send the sick. For example a friend who is a cancer specialist tells me that something like 40% of people with previously terminal cancer conditions are now able to be completely cleared to their conditions with modern drugs. While I am more than happy for those who have been declared by doctors as beyond medical help, to explore all other options including those offered at Lourdes, I would have thought that if cure was really the main consideration, the Church would be better served by putting its resources into medical research and conventional delivery of medical services.
Perhaps the tourist phenomenon is the real miracle because for such a small centre, those concerned with tourism must be absolutely delighted with something like 200 hotels, 6.5million postcards sent from Lourdes each year, and untold tourist shops (and pharmacies) all doing a roaring trade.