I’ve got good news and bad. You want the bad first ? Lourdes is sick. Just ten years ago, the miraculous spring revealed by the Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 attracted each year 800,000 pilgrims. Today it’s 570,000. The good news is that the competition is thriving. Since 2012, Fatima and Compostella have seen the number of their visitors increase by 50% while Lourdes has lost 30%. Fatima, celebrating this year the centenary of Mary’s apparitions to three Portuguese kids in 1917, today attracts 250,000 visitors, increasing every year, as numbers dwindle in Lourdes. The French sanctuary, which is completely independent of the commerce of kitsch for which its streets have always been (in)famous, has suffered from myopic mismanagement. Meantime, in just a few weeks, rival Fatima will get a windfall of extra cash from record-breaking crowds of pilgrims, when Pope Francis attends the centenary celebration in May. Updated marketing, including “Lourdes for Lovers” (officially a St Valentine “Weekend pour les Couples”), along with certain austerity measures in personnel management, will, the local Bishop hopes, stop the rot in Lourdes.
“Schadenfreude” for Lourdes’ plight would be misplaced, as would be rejoicing in Fatima’s mounting success. But it looks as though the younger Portuguese competition for Marial business is better equipped to exploit its credulous clientele. The site of the Sun stopping still (!) and dancing (!!) is just 100 kms from Lisbonne, its church is the fourth largest Catholic church in the world, and its candle business is much more efficient and profitable than Lourdes. On the other hand, the French Railways no longer provide special trains to cater for bed-ridden invalids seeking miraculous cures in Lourdes. The French site is suffering for another, more serious, reason. When I lived in the Franciscan parish friary in Paris during my doctoral studies, the Friars ran a lucrative business organizing pilgrimages to the Holy Land (a Franciscan stronghold), but also to Lourdes. There were, at the time (the sixties), 50,000 priests in France and many parish-priests organized similar pilgrimages for their parishioners. Today there are only 15,000 members of the French clergy, many of them too old to accompany and guide such groups, but also too busy trying to minister not to one but to several parishes, with no time left for Lourdes.
But the Pilgrimage Business has a bright future ahead of it. It provides the Catholic equivalent of trips to Disneyland, without the rides. The 1000-year old monastery of Mont Saint Michel is still popular not only for tourism but as a place of pilgrimage. It has Saint Michael the Archangel as its patron. Disney has Mickey.