CNN Photos

Riding the ‘white train’ in search of a miracle

In the small French town of Lourdes, disabled pilgrims arrive once a year, some every year, hoping for a miracle.

Photographers Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni rode with 600 Catholic pilgrims and volunteers as they took the “white train” from Reggio Calabria in southern Italy to Lourdes.

The 35-hour trip accommodates the pilgrims with various physical or neurological disabilities, even those who are bedridden.

Hope, along with faith and love, is one of the three virtues in the Christian religion, and Piccinni said this pilgrimage is a way to keep hope alive.

“Without hope, these people probably would lose not only faith but also the strength to continue to live and help their loved ones,” she said.

Lourdes became a pilgrimage destination after a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who became known as Our Lady of Lourdes, in the 19th century.

Since then, sick pilgrims have reputedly been healed by the Lourdes water. One mother brings her two sons with neurological disorders every year, hoping that they would be cured.

“When you cannot rely on the medical care, for these people, the only possibility that remains is to believe in a divine act,” Piccinni said.

On the ride to Lourdes, the passengers are excited to be making this journey together and to reach the sanctuary, the area around the shrine for Our Lady of Lourdes where a miracle might happen.

“The pilgrimage to Lourdes is an opportunity to feel part of a bound community, connected by a strong faith and, furthermore, to get rid of the burden of daily life and the perception for the bedridden of being a misfit,” Piccinni said.

Most of the passengers are realistic about their expectations for a cure, she said.

“The pilgrims are aware that the miracle of healing is something rare. Most, however, will be happy to have lived this experience of prayer, joy and group sharing.”

Piccinni and Caimi first became interested in documenting the journey after hearing about a surge in pilgrimages to sacred Catholic sites after Pope Francis became the leader of the church.

According to the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, the number of pilgrims who visited Lourdes in 2013 is double the number of visitors in 2012, before Pope Francis was elected.

Pilgrims told the photographers Pope Francis brought a “human touch” they thought was missing during Pope Benedict XVI’s rule.

“Some felt that the warmness of the beloved John Paul II was somehow back,” she said.

Volunteers told her that they are energized by the reflection and meditation they experience while helping the disabled pilgrims.

“The trip to Lourdes is physically and psychologically demanding both for the sick people and for the volunteers, who are in charge of the well-being of all the pilgrims,” Piccinni said.

The trip home has a different feel than the trip to Lourdes.

“The return trip is certainly more complicated. The miracle did not happen. The week was for all intense and tiring,” Piccinni said.

“Many sufferers are sad because they have to be separated from friends who meet only once a year during the pilgrimage.”

But there’s always next year.

- Lauren Russell, CNN