Mention the name "Lourdes" to anyone familiar with this famous place of pilgrimage in Southern Frances and, immediately, the image of miraculous cures comes to mind. Best known as a place for such Divine intervention, Lourdes is, in fact, a source of far greater and more frequent spiritual renewal and strengthening than the occasional supernatural cure. Indeed, since the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, only 65 certifiable miracles have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. However, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, millions of people have been touched and healed by visits to this spiritual wellspring.
The religious story of Lourdes began on Thursday, February 11, 1858, when three girls, one of whom was the fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous, went to collect wood along the shores of the river Gave. In the course of that outing Bernadette heard a noise and, looking up, saw a woman dressed in white and praying the rosary. Following that first apparition, Bernadette was to see her "beautiful Lady" 17 times more. However, it was not until the third appearance, on February 18th, that the Lady finally spoke to Bernadette and asked her to come to the grotto every day for two weeks. In return, if Bernadette did as she was asked, the Lady said that while she could not promise Bernadette happiness in this life, she could and would do so in the next. Bernadette followed the Lady's direction and began to visit the grotto daily.
As word of the story spread, crowds began to accompany Bernadette. In the course of these visits, the Lady revealed that she had come primarily to communicate a message of repentance and prayer for the conversion of sinners. Bernadette relayed this message, and others, to those who watched her mysterious conversations.
On one occasion, the Lady instructed Bernadette to wash at the spring. There being no spring, Bernadette dug a small hole, and in the muddy water which appeared, washed herself. By the next day, an abundant spring of fresh water had begun to flow.
During the 13th apparition, the Lady asked Bernadette to arrange for a Chapel to be built on that site. In relating this request to the parish priest, Bernadette was asked to inquire what the Lady's name might be. Bernadette asked, but it was not until three days later that the Lady finally identified herself by saying, "I am the Immaculate Conception." This response inspired the parish priest to believe that Bernadette had, in fact, seen an apparition of the Blessed Mother.
The wondrous spring uncovered by Bernadette was responsible for the first medically unexplainable cures at Lourdes. Since then, many have been cured through the use of the special baths, which even today contain water from the still flowing miraculous spring.
In response to the Lady's request, a chapel was built on the site of the apparition. Indeed, the present main Basilica consists of three chapels, erected one on top of another. In addition, on the grounds of the shrine there are other churches which have been built over the course of the years. The largest, the Basilica of St. Pius X, can hold crowds of more than 30 thousand and was dedicated by Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, who had been Papal Nuncio to France.
In 1866, Bernadette entered religious life, in the Congregation of the Sisters of Nevers, where she lived for 13 years at the convent of Saint Gildard. She died there on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35, and was buried in the convent cemetery. In September 1909, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Today it can be seen in a glass casket in the Nevers chapel. Saint Bernadette was canonized by Pope Pius XI on December 8, 1933.
A visit to Lourdes allows one to reflect upon the ongoing, saving activity of God. The occasional miraculous healings serve to remind us that God can and does continue to intervene in human history. But beyond reflecting upon past miracles, or hoping and praying for future ones, what does one experience today in Lourdes?
Any person who has made a pilgrimage to this remarkable shrine of Our Lady will tell you that Lourdes is a place where the sick, the poor, those with emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical handicaps find encouragement, solace and hope. There, these downtrodden of the world, who always had a special place in the heart and activity of the Lord Jesus Himself, becomes the center of attention. Just as Jesus made the sick and the poor the focus of His public ministry, so too in Lourdes do these same children of God become the focus of the community's activity and care. Each day the sick are taken to the baths, brought in procession with the Blessed Sacrament around the main esplanade of the shrine, and taken to visit the sacred grotto. Each evening they can participate in the candlelight procession, praying the rosary with hundreds, indeed thousands, of others, asking that God bring them greater peace, strength and consolation. Lourdes provides a glimpse into what the Lord envisioned for the Kingdom He came to establish, a Kingdom where the blind, the deaf, the lame, indeed all those in need, have the places of honor.
What do the "well," the "healthy" who travel to Lourdes derive from such a visit? Again, ask anyone who has been there and they will tell you that they, too, come away with a sense of peace, reconciliation, and healing. Not only are the "well" more grateful for the many blessings which God has bestowed upon them, but they are often more aware of His goodness to all of creation, and frequently realize they have developed a compassion of which they were not previously capable.
Healing occurs in a variety of ways, on many levels, to everyone. The small number of miraculous cures which have been certified over the years is negligible when compared with the vast number of genuine healings that occur everyday at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. The truly remarkable thing about a pilgrimage to this small town in the Pyrenees is that everyone who visits realizes that they have been healed, touched, loved by God.
Next month I will make my seventh pilgrimage to Lourdes. My first was in the summer of 1987, when I accompanied the Bishop for whom I served as Secretary, and I have returned nearly every year since. Before my first visit I was not sure what to expect, nor did I have any inclination as to how remarkable the experience would be. My piety has never been heavily focused on this type of devotion. However, I do not tire of visiting Lourdes. The opportunities for prayer, for reflection, to celebrate the Sacraments, to experience the presence of our Blessed Lord and His Holy Mother are always new, always fresh, always alive. A visit to Lourdes is something I would strongly recommend to everyone, whatever their personal piety, whether their faith is strong or not. Indeed, this is a wonderful place for having one's faith deepened; something which happens without your realizing it.
Among my favorite, life long devotions are the Stations of the Cross. For several reasons I have developed a deep attachment to the practice of accompanying Jesus on His journey to calvary. The shrine at Lourdes has two sets of Stations. The lower Stations, which are across the rive Gave from the Grotto and which can easily be made by those in wheel chairs or on stretchers; and the upper Stations which are on a hillside above the main area of the shrine. These latter have larger-than-life-size statues in a truly dramatic and rugged setting. On my first visit I fell in love with the upper Stations and each year I have never missed an opportunity to make them, some years more than once. They are marvelous to behold and allow one to be drawn ever more deeply into the experience of Our Lord's suffering and death. If you make a visit to Lourdes, don't fail to make the Stations. It will be an experience you never forget.
The other opportunity not to be missed is the candlelight rosary procession each night. The feeling of being in a crowd of thousands, all praying and singing, is among the most moving I have ever known. Here in the United States we are not accustomed to such public displays of religiosity. But, having once participated, you will forever cherish the moment, and be eager to do so again.
Pilgrimages are journeys of faith, where God can be found along the way there and back, as well as at the final destination. I have always found this so with Lourdes. Each time before I travel I wonder what it will be like, how I will feel, in which ways will the Lord manifest Himself to me. Upon my return, I am consistently amazed at how powerfully I have experienced the presence of the Divine. Mary showed Bernadette the joys of loving her Son. She will show us also, if we only give her a chance. Lourdes is a place to learn for yourself that this is so.
Photos courtesy of the Rev. Leo J. Gorman, C.P.