This article appeared in the Daily Mail on 9 January 2008 prior to the 150th anniversary of the Apparitions.

On 11th February 1858, the fourteen year-old Bernadette Soubirous, set off with her younger sister and a friend to forage for firewood in the countryside outside Lourdes. In a natural grotto near the Gave river, she spotted a pile of twigs. As she took off her clogs to cross the water, Bernadette heard a sound ‘like a gust of wind’ and, looking up, caught sight of ‘a Lady in white’.

The Lady appeared to Bernadette a further seventeen times that spring, identifying herself merely as ‘the Immaculate Conception’. This name, together with seven apparently miraculous cures, was instrumental in persuading the religious authorities, who were initially hostile to Bernadette, to authenticate her vision and, in 1862, to begin work on the chapel which the girl claimed that the Lady had ordered to be built at the grotto.

The Church immediately started to buy up the surrounding land and, today, the fifty-hectare site known as the Domain is one of the largest shrines in the world, containing several churches and chapels, visitors’ centres, two nursing homes with beds for thirteen hundred sick pilgrims, and the all-important baths.

From the start, Bernadette drew the crowds. The hundred onlookers who watched her receive the sixth apparition on 21st February had swollen to eight thousand by the time of the fifteenth on 4th March. Now, the town which, before 1858, was known largely as a staging post for the spa towns of the Pyrenees, attracts nearly six million visitors a year, making it the biggest site of Christian pilgrimage outside Rome.

Lourdes boasts more hotel rooms than any French town except Paris with nearly 40,000 beds (the town’s population is only 15,000). As a rule, the pilgrimage season lasts from Easter to the end of October, but this year, being the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, is an exception. From 8th December 2007, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to 8th December 2008, Lourdes will host a yearlong programme of festivities, including twelve monthly Church Missions and a visit from the Pope.

Pilgrims from Britain make up around 5% of Lourdes’ visitors. While some travel independently, most come on one of the many tours organised by the Catholic dioceses and other religious organisations. I travelled last October with the Raphael Pilgrimage, an annual pilgrimage of around 250 people, founded by Leonard Cheshire in 1953 to take 40 or 50 sick and disabled pilgrims to the shrine.

As a freethinking Anglican who had joined the pilgrimage both as part of my own spiritual quest and as research for a forthcoming novel, I felt totally welcomed by this Roman Catholic group. I have, however, rarely felt more Protestant than when faced with Lourdes’ overwhelming emphasis on Mary, to the apparent exclusion of her son. Even the bells of the grotto basilica chime ‘Ave Maria’ on the hour.

The heart of our pilgrimage lay in the religious services which we held both in private and as part of the wider Lourdes community. We prayed at the grotto before processing with the pilgrimage candle to the nearby burners, where it was placed among thousand of others. We walked the Stations of the Cross and attended several liturgies for the sick, including one at the beautiful medieval abbey church of Saint-Savin en Lavedan, high in the mountains above Lourdes.

We joined thousands of our fellow pilgrims for the daily Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, moving slowly through the Domain to the Pius X basilica, a subterranean church with all the charm of an underground car park. Its bare concrete walls are relieved only by huge banners of obscure saints, such as St Jean Eudes holding a sacred heart like a genetically modified strawberry.

Far more moving was the torchlit Marian Procession where, with candles aloft, we joined a vast crowd making its way around the Domain at dusk, reciting the Mysteries of the Rosary, before assembling for prayers and blessings at the steps of the Crypt. The dozens of different languages blasting over the loudspeakers bore witness to a truly universal faith.

Lourdes is the one town I have visited where the disabled take precedence. At times it seems as if half the population is pushing the other half in the thousands of wheelchairs and voitures (unique Lourdes hand-drawn carriages) that fill the Domain. They come to the shrine as a place of prayer and a place of healing but, although there have been claims of thousands of cures since the days of Bernadette (witnessed by the devotional plaques on the walls of the Basilica and Crypt), the Church authorities have recognised only sixty-six miracles.

The seriously ill and severely disabled on our pilgrimage, while no doubt praying for a miracle, did not see it as the raison d’etre of their visit. They, rather, welcomed the chance to express and enhance their faith in the company of others. The courage and humour with which they accepted their lot put my own gripes over minor hardships to shame.

No less inspirational was the devotion of the helpers. Lourdes is run largely by volunteers. Even the baggage handlers at the airport on our arrival were a group of middle-aged men from Liverpool. Every able-bodied person on the Raphael Pilgrimage played a part in caring for the sick and disabled. There were several volunteer doctors, nurses and priests, but the majority did basic cleaning, caring, catering and support duties, the men being known as brancardiers (the French for stretcher-bearers) and the women as handmaidens.

Our oldest handmaiden was eighty-one and the senior priest, Father Leo, had been leading the pilgrimage for thirty-three years. At the other end of the scale were forty young men and women in their late teens and early twenties who, defying all the jeremiads about the callousness of contemporary youth, performed the most menial jobs with courtesy, care and humour. Then, after a day of heavy duties, they would party well into the night, their bleary eyes at breakfast prompting much speculation about burgeoning romances.

On the last day we visited the baths, which for many was the highlight of the pilgrimage. The entry system was one of organised chaos as we shuffled along benches in the forecourt to be let in seemingly at whim. Once inside the shabby vestibule, we endured a further prolonged wait before being summoned in groups of six into a small cubicle where we stripped to our underpants.

We were then taken individually through a curtain to one of the baths. I felt even more of an interloper when an attendant told me that it was an opportunity to renew my baptismal vows. I removed my pants and, after putting on a small linen wrap, was led down into the bath. Having been warned that the water would be icy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was merely cold. I sat, immersed to the neck, while the attendants prayed with me. They then helped me out and back to the cubicle. When I asked for a towel, I was told that one wouldn’t be necessary since the water would dry on my skin. As I reached for my clothes, I found to my amazement that it was true.

What sceptics attribute to the mineral properties of the water, believers attribute to the miraculous ones. Lourdes is a place which provokes such polarised responses. On the one hand, it attests to genuine faith and selflessness and, on the other, to credulity and commercialism. If the former ultimately wins out, it is because even in the face of the musical Madonnas, the John Paul II key-rings and Bernadette oven-gloves, it is impossible not to be moved by the sincerity and devotion of the pilgrims.

While showing us a statue of the Virgin in front of the Basilica, Father Pat, a former travel agent and Lourdes habitué, related the legend that it had originally been placed with Mary looking away from the grotto but, the morning after it was erected, she was found to be gazing towards it and has been left like that ever since. He then recounted a second legend that, if you recited three Hail Marys beside it, you would one day return to Lourdes. For all my scepticism, I made sure that I did.