By sheer stroke of luck, this year a friend offered me his chateau in the Dordogne, France, for the Christmas period. After a quick family consultation we decided to take up the generous offer.
Dordogne lies between the Massif Centrale and the Pyrenees mountain range that firms the border with Spain.
On the run-up to Christmas day my wife decided we should take a trip to the Marian shrine of Lourdes – some 300km away. She wanted to have a Mass offered for my mother who had recently died.
It was a nice idea and I had never been there before, despite having heard so much about the place over the years. My mother would often threaten my father with either Mount Melleray or Lough Derg to atone for his sins or misbehaviour.
Educated by Jesuits we were not encouraged to explore the concept of pilgrimages and miracles - faith and reason were seen to be paramount in our religious education. One got the distinct impression that excessive piety and devotionalism was frowned upon.
But, back to Lourdes. As the French motorway arcs away from Toulouse the Pyrenees come into sight, filling out the horizon, snow-capped and wreathed in early morning mist. Lourdes is placed within them and surrounded by hills. It’s easy to see why the Romans built a fortress on one of these hills.
We managed to get there for 11am Mass, one of only two being held on Christmas Day in the church that stands atop the grotto. The French liturgy is much better than its Irish equivalent. There are a great deal more hymns and sung responses led by a cantor whose sole duty is to do so.
The sermon is simple and focused on the idea of God becoming wholly man to save us. It being Christmas Day, off-peak season for the shrine neither the Mass nor the grotto are teeming with people.
In the basilica after Mass there is reasonable cheer. An Irish traveller man tells me he has been coming to Lourdes since the age of 16. Immersing himself in the waters of the grotto leaves him refreshed and dry. There is, he says, a special quality to the water, it leaves no dampness on his clothes.
A young Indian from the province of Kerala, working in Germany, has made it his mission to be there on Christmas Day. Another Indian family are stopping here enough route to Fatima.
Many of the people I met are far from the stereotypical devout people that many construct in their mind when they think of people worshipping at shrines. What struck me forcibly was that, whether young or old, they were seeking a personal route to or relationship with God.
What impressed me most about these very average people or pilgrims was that they clearly had a belief that was not dependent on their membership of the Church as an institution.
They are the kind of believers that the Church should be encouraging others to become. They were not showy or over-talkative about their faith, they had worked it out for themselves through the ritual of pilgrimage.
The younger generation fully understand the mystery and magic of Lourdes. The Harry Potter generation have, thanks to J.K. Rowling, been allowed the imaginative space to consider the miraculous to be possible.
For me at least, the continuing appeal of pilgrimage to Lourdes and other places is that in an age obsessed by consumerism, these places act as a religious antidote to the commercialised claims of the well-being industry.
Conor Lenihan is a former Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation. Over the past five years he has lived abroad principally as a Vice President of the Skolkovo high tech project in Moscow.