ROSARIO, Argentina — They came by the thousands, praying for a miracle.

There was the 21-year-old woman who was paralyzed and intubated. The 66-year-old former truck driver who lost his voice two years ago. A 56-year-old who gradually lost his vision.

They rode buses from across the country, camped out overnight and waited in line for hours. Then, one by one, on crutches and in wheelchairs, holding babies and carrying photographs of relatives far away, they approached the woman they hoped would heal them

And one by one, they started to faint.

At the front of a packed warehouse, 44-year-old Leda Bergonzi placed her hand on each of their foreheads and whispered into their ears. As she blessed them, some grabbed onto her, sobbing uncontrollably. Others collapsed into her arms or dropped onto the concrete floor. Members of her team stood by, ready to catch people as they fell.

“I told myself, I’ll go with all my faith and give it a try,” said Jorge Fernández, a 56-year-old former bricklayer who lost his vision after a traffic accident in 2019 and had traveled to Bergonzi’s ceremony for the sixth time. “Thanks to God and Leda’s touch, I started seeing again.”

Argentina has seen previous cases of charismatic priests attracting large crowds in search of healing, including here in Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city. But Bergonzi looks nothing like them. A lay person, she doesn’t wear robes or veils. She favors skinny jeans and high-top sneakers.

In the weekly programs, she sings alongside a band while speaking spontaneously in tongues, beneath bright, colorful lights. It’s a scene that would appear at home in an evangelical church, a movement that has rapidly gained ground in Latin America.

Bergonzi, though, is Catholic. She describes herself as an intermediary — an instrument for God.

And local Catholic leaders are fully behind her.

A priest keeps watchful vigil over her gatherings, which are preceded by a Mass and Eucharistic adoration. This fall, the archbishop of Rosario released a remarkable statement endorsing her, describing her as a “phenomenon occurring within the Catholic Church.”

Here in the home country of Pope Francis, where Catholicism is facing a steep decline, Bergonzi is giving people a reason to return to Mass.

The question is whether her movement can reconnect people to the Catholic Church — and keep them coming back.

A call from God

About eight years ago, in a small Catholic prayer group, Bergonzi, a seamstress with five children and a granddaughter, realized she had a divine gift, she says — an ability to heal people through the Holy Spirit.

“I’m a normal person, just like you all, going through a call from God,” she said in an interview.

She began drawing followers, people who would come to her prayer group every Tuesday. As more and more people shared their testimonies, she began moving into bigger and bigger venues for her weekly ceremonies. Then, after a local news article about her circulated and word spread that soccer star Lionel Messi’s family attended one of her gatherings, her following exploded.

“In the past, a healing priest needed decades to become known,” said Diego Mauro, a historian and coordinator of the Observatory of Religious Cultures at the University of Rosario. “It could take a long time for news to reach Buenos Aires, but now, with social media and testimonial videos, it spreads like wildfire. Especially in a political and economic context with so little hope for the future.”

About 20,000 people have been showing up every week in Rosario, the city with the highest murder rate in the country and where gangs fight for control of the local drug trade. Arriving on “religious tourism” buses, the pilgrims pack the city’s hotels and restaurants. And on Tuesdays, they join a line about a mile-long in the hopes of being blessed by Bergonzi.

Juan José Calandra, a priest from a parish near Rosario who has been accompanying Bergonzi for years, estimates there are at least 10 to 15 “Ledas” in the country. In one of Rosario’s slums, a local priest, Father Ignacio, has drawn believers for many years now. In the late 1990s, the charismatic priest Mario Pantaleo conducted healing sessions in his parish in the Buenos Aires suburbs — and even reportedly helped former Argentine president Carlos Menem.

The believers

As her followers waited for their moment of impact, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the line to reach Bergonzi stretched as much as a mile. Two warehouses — each with capacity for 1,300 people — were also packed. Many had been waiting for a full day or camping out on lawn chairs overnight.

For almost 12 hours straight, Bergonzi placed her hands on one person after another. She stopped only for short restroom breaks. She consumed only Gatorade and watermelon-flavored Halls lozenges.

The reactions, at times, were visceral: Some people cried out. Others seemed to convulse. One woman fainted with her child in her hands. The faintings were so frequent that Bergonzi sometimes stepped over people, collapsed on the floor, to reach the next person. In some cases, for privacy, she and her team would cover someone with a sheet bearing the image of Jesus.

She said she doesn’t remember or even register what she tells people. But she can usually tell, immediately, she said, if a person has been healed.

One of the first people in line was Nazarena Velazco, 21, who arrived at 4:30 a.m., after traveling five hours from the Cordoba province with her mother.