Lourdes is a town of 17,000 inhabitants in the foothills of the Pyrenees, visited by 5m people a year. On 11 February 1858, a 14 year old girl named Bernadette Soubirous, out gathering firewood with her sisters, got separated from them at Massabielle and had a vision at the grotto of a lady dressed in white, wearing a blue sash and with a yellow rose on each foot. The visions continued over the following five months.

Bernadette asked the lady who she was; eventually she was told ‘Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou’ (I am The Immaculate Conception). Bernardette was told to pray for sinners, drink the water there, and get the clergy to build a chapel. The rest is history.

The grotto is surrounded by a ‘domain’ of some 50 hectares. Commercialism rules outside, but at its gates spirituality begins. Forget the shops in the town; forget the underground basilica of St Pius X (1958) which holds 10,000 pilgrims; forget the basilica above the grotto (built in the best 19th c. French Gothic wedding-cake style). Go to the grotto and pray where Bernadette prayed. John Paul II was the first Pope to visit Lourdes, coming here for the Assumption in 1983 and again, when he was a sick man, in 2004: he prayed here too. There is no best time to visit Lourdes.

Go in January, when it is deserted, with a trickle of pilgrims, and you can more easily concentrate on the business in hand. Go in August, and it is bedlam, but you get the solidarity of being there with tens of thousands of Catholics from all over the world.

Reflect: ‘Holy Virgin by God’s decree, you were called eternally; that he could give his Son to our race. Mary, we praise you, hail full of grace. Ave, ave, ave Maria.’ Ask yourself: am I conscious of the divine plan for my life?