One of the most senior officials at Lourdes has hailed British pilgrimages as the best in the world.
Dr Alessandro de Franciscis, the president of the Office of Medical Observations, said that pilgrimages organised in the UK and Ireland were so good that he was proposing them as a model for the rest of the world.
“If you asked me what has most surprised me in my seven-year tenure in Lourdes was the presence of the people of the British Isles,” said Dr de Franciscis. “That surprised me very positively.”
He said he had never imagined “the love and the structure and the style that the pilgrimages from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland live in Lourdes”.
Britain and Ireland, he said, organised diocesan pilgrimages in a different model from that undertaken by the Catholics of continental Europe, which were largely individual or parish-based.
“To start with, the usual model of your pilgrimage is a Church pilgrimage and that is not always the case in France,” he said.
“You have the bishop, his auxiliaries, your canons, the people in charge of different offices of the dioceses, your Catholic schools,” Dr de Francisicis told the annual Shrewsbury Diocesan Symposium for the New Evangelisation in St Ambrose College, Hale Barns, Cheshire.
“I have never seen one Italian Catholic school in Lourdes in the past seven years. I do see the French schools which come with the Dominican pilgrimage, but I think I know the uniforms of all the Catholic schools in the UK and Ireland.”
He said that while it did not necessarily mean that many of young people on pilgrimage were always believers in Christianity, or practising Catholics, it did mean however that they would experience Lourdes as a place of mercy and service.
Many of these young people, he continued, would return home at the very least with a small souvenir, such as a badge or a set of rosary beads, which many years later – possibly after disaster has struck in the forms of a broken marriage, death, disease or unemployment – may serve as a reminder of their visit to Lourdes in their youth and possibly help them to rekindle their faith or to find it for the first time.
Dr de Franciscis said: “I think it is wonderful. You bring the sick people but you bring also the others. You bring the educators, people of responsibility and the religious. This model, I think, is for the future. I think this is what we need.
“I have been transferring this kind of experience to the French, Italian, Spanish, German and North American bishops because I think this is a model.”
Dr de Franciscis also praised the pioneering work of such organisations as Jumbulance and the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, which befriend the sick and disabled ahead of an Easter pilgrimage to the shrine.
“I think that we in Lourdes, and myself personally, owe so much to these good examples over the past years,” he added.
The British and Irish models of pilgrimage were so robust, he said, that they would withstand cycles of decline.
Numbers of pilgrims to Lourdes have halved recently from about six million to some three million in the last two years.
Of the three million, between 800,000 and 900,000 come on organised group pilgrimages of the sort adopted by the Church in the UK and Ireland.
In 2009, Naples-born Dr de Franciscis, a Harvard-educated paediatrician and epidemiologist, became the first non-French doctor appointed head of the Office of Medical Observations, the body which records and investigates cures at Lourdes.
Since St Bernadette Soubirous received apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858, there have been 69 healings officially declared to be miracles by the Catholic bishops among more than 7,000 inexplicable cures from severe medical conditions following pilgrimages to the shrine.
Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics to make pilgrimages during the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy.