Someone recently inquired, “Bishop, how was your tour of Lourdes?” I gently corrected her and explained that I was not on a tour. It was not a vacation. Nor, time for relaxation. It was a pilgrimage arranged through the generosity and charity of the Knights and Dames of Malta and in the company of more than 40 sick children, teenagers, men and women. A pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place. A pilgrim is a seeker. Lourdes is a holy place. I went there as a pilgrim on a pilgrimage.
In 1858 the Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous and identified herself with the title, the Immaculate Conception. In addition, Mary requested that a chapel be built on the site of her appearance in the cave where a spring of water emerged. Not many years after the vision granted to Saint Bernadette, the Church approved the veracity of what Saint Bernadette reported. Since then, millions have come on pilgrimage to Lourdes.
The moment one walks through the gate of the Domaine (the Shrine), she or he is aware of having arrived at a holy place. This is a place where God is worshipped and adored; where God is present and loved. During a pilgrimage the pilgrims are spiritually affected. Things happen to them. Spiritual things. The pilgrim is moved closer to an awareness of God’s presence and God’s love for him or her. Lourdes is about Mary leading a pilgrim to the love and closeness of her divine Son.
The nightly candle light procession winding its way throughout the grounds of the Shrine; the swelling chants of the Ave, Ave, Ave Maria; the multi lingual recitation of the Rosary; the Grotto of the appearance; the presence of the sick wheeled in their special carriages; the celebration of the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Sick, the Sacraments of Penance and Confirmation; the Stations of the Cross; the continual prayers of petition being uttered in the chapels — all of these move the pilgrims, both the infirm and the healthy, to the presence and love of God.
Then there are the baths. Plunging into the holy waters of Lourdes. The water flowing over one’s body while praying the Hail Mary and being assisted by the attendants. The wet freezing waters of Lourdes awakening the pilgrim to the care of God. The respect of the volunteers who assist those who are entering the waters at the baths. Their dignified attention to the paralyzed, the infirm, the elderly, the children, and their gentle kindness as they dress and undress those who cannot do it for themselves.
Each day our group of more than 400 broke into teams in which each one had a specific task to do and from there we wound our way from our hotel through the village of Lourdes to the Domaine. Hundreds and hundreds of others from all over the world were doing the same. The Dames of Malta in their distinctive capes and veils. The Knights of Malta in their uniforms and berets. Prominent on their uniforms the Cross of Malta with its four arms and eight points like arrowheads reaching out to the world; penetrating through its darkness with the light of the Cross of Jesus.
During the week our group from all over the tristate area became a community. The common meals and even daily Happy Hour provided time to talk, to get to know strangers and to enjoy the company of one another. The chaplains, priests and bishops and His Eminence Cardinal Dolan were available to the pilgrims.
Many go to Lourdes seeking a physical cure and cures do happen which are verified by a detailed process. But, all at Lourdes can be cured from the isolation or distance from God that the sick and their caregivers may experience. That wall is broken down. Each pilgrim knows that she or he is not alone. God is with them, not at a distance despite their suffering and the fright caused by their disease. And, so too is the maternal love of our Church with them at this Shrine of the Mother of God. Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. Saint Bernadette, pray for us.