MYTH OR MIRACLE? This Easter 20,000 Pilgrims Will Descend on Lourdes. Now a Fascinating New Book Tells How a Young Girl's Visions Inspired the Most Famous of All Christian Shrines .

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Byline: ANNE DE COURCY

GET UP and walk,' commanded the voice as Jean-Pierre Bely, crippled by multiple sclerosis for 15 years, lay on his hospital bed in the small French town of Lourdes.

'A feeling of cold, getting stronger and stronger, invaded me. Then there was a sensation of heat, slight at first then difficult to bear,' the 63-year-old grandfather remembers.

Jean-Pierre felt a force pull him up from his sickbed, found his legs dangling over the edge and took his first steps for years.

'I stumbled, like a child learning to walk, but I felt stable on my legs .

. . I felt a marvellous liberating force. I was happy, euphoric,' he says.

He had not come to Lourdes, the most famous Christian shrine, expecting a cure.

Like hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, sick and healthy, who have travelled there from all over the world, he was seeking peace and solace.

But last month, after 12 years of investigation, Jean-Pierre's recovery from MS was recognised as a miracle by the Vatican - the first since 1976 and only the 66th in the history of Lourdes.

This weekend an Easter congregation of more than 20,000 will descend on the town for the start of the pilgrimage season.

Between now and October, more than five million people will bathe in the curative waters - and stories of miraculous healing will be told over and over.

But it is the story behind the making of the shrine that is truly extraordinary: a combination of political, economic, geographic and social factors that resulted in a vision seen by just one ignorant teenager inspiring millions.

In a new book, historian Ruth Harris reveals the motives, actions, beliefs and culture of the overlapping worlds of this corner of 19th-century France which formed the legend that is Lourdes.

AT THE heart of the legend is 14-year-old Bernadette Soub-irous, a peasant girl in poor health, and her 18 visions of 'a young girl in white,' in what became known as the Grotto of Lourdes.

What makes her story so astounding is that no one else - and hundreds were present during her later visions - saw anything and yet they believed.

To comprehend the full effect of these visions and why they were accepted as authentic, we must remember that apparitions were not unknown in France in this, the 'age of Mary'. The Mother of God represented hope, consolation, grace, pity, help and comfort and her porcelain image adorned the homes of rich and poor alike.

In 1830, a young nun, Catherine Laboure, had seen the Virgin in Paris - visions that heralded the special devotion of Catholics to Mary as the Immaculate Conception.

In 1842 Mary appeared to Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jew from Alsace, who was instantly - and publicly - converted and became a priest. In 1846, a luminous Virgin predicted death and destruction when she appeared to two shepherd children at La Salette, an isolated Alpine commune.

Then, on February 11, 1858, came the first of the visions seen by the girl who became known as Bernadette of Lourdes.

Lourdes was a small market town of 4,000 people lying in the Hautes Pyrenees. It was cut off by geography, culture and, above all, language from the rest of France.

A few miles from the Spanish border, its people spoke a patois and couldn't easily understand their neighbours from the next valley. It was a world of its own, unchanged for 500 years, with a deeply Catholic population brought up on stories of miracles and pilgrimages. The community had little sense of being French, and disdain for the state manifested itself in lawbreaking on a grand scale.

The townsfolk were mostly peasants - shepherds, farmers, forestry workers, quarrymen and millers. Bernadette's father, Francois, a failed miller, had no regular employment but worked wherever he could. He was considered to be one of the lowest of the low. …