Our Parish Pilgrimage to Lourdes

I have spent the last week on Pilgrimage in Lourdes, France. Lourdes is a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, on the border with Spain. The town is famous for the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes which occurred in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous.

Lourdes is a very special place for me. It is where I met my wonderful wife in 1989, and has become one of those places which seem central to the story of our lives. I went back to Lourdes last year for the first time in some 16 years, after spending many springs and summers there as a youngster with the HCPT and ACROSS, helping handicapped children and adults. You can read about that here. This year, the Parish went on pilgrimage there and Louise suggested I take our youngest son John.

This meant I was in Lourdes without Louise for the first time ever, which was a bit strange. It was also the first time I have been with my dear friend and parish priest, Father Kevin Hale. Also, I got to travel with all my wonderful friends from the parish, quite a few of whom I travelled with to the Holy Land in 2010. We were also joined by a large group of children from our Junior School (also called Our Lady of Lourdes) and several of the teachers. Having had four children at the school, one still to go, I have got to know most of these teachers really well. The Head Teacher was a friend of mine long before the children started at the school, or she became Head! Even before that, she was a close friend of my wife's. So it was a great joy and privilege to be able to share this experience with all these people.

Lourdes for me presents a place where the metaphysical and the physical have collided in a series of extraordinary events. Today many often ask for proof of the reality of the doctrines of the Catholic faith, and Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, present us with undeniable sources of evidence for the continuing intervention of the divine in day to day life. However, because the apparitions are private, and not public revelations, Catholics are not required to believe them.

Of course Our Lady does not reveal anything new about our faith, because the fullness of the reality of God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Instead, and quite remarkably, Mary constantly re-directs and points us toward her Son, the Christ, and reminds us of His uniqueness "He was conceived of the Virgin Mary" (Apostles Creed). Neither do the apparitions add any additional material to the truths of the Catholic Church as expressed in public revelation. In Roman Catholic belief, God chooses whom he wants cured, and whom he does not, and by what means. Bernadette said, "One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith."

In fact, The officially recognised miracle cures in Lourdes are among the least controversial in the Catholic world, because Lourdes from the very beginning was subject to intense medical investigation from skeptical doctors around the world. All medical doctors with an appropriate specialisation in the area of the cure, have unlimited access to the files and documents of the Lourdes Medical Bureau (Bureau Medical), which also contains all approved and disapproved miracles. This was established at the request of Pope Saint Pius X to ensure claims of cures were examined properly and to protect the town from fraudulent claims of miracles. It is completely under medical and not ecclesiastical supervision.

Approximately 7000 people have sought to have their case confirmed as a miracle, of which 68 have been declared a scientifically inexplicable miracle by both the Bureau and the Catholic Church. Most officially recognised cures in Lourdes were openly discussed and reported on in the media at the time. Nevertheless, there were a few instances where medically ascertained incomprehension turned out not to be a miracle, because the illness reappeared in later years. In the vast majority of cases however, the judgment of the medical and ecclesiastical authorities was upheld as beyond medical explanation in later on critical investigations.

Some consider that the Shrine is a form of worship of Mary. This position incorrectly interprets that a Marian dimension and Mariology in the Church are simply another expression aspect of the centrality of Christ in the faith and life of the Church. One needs only examine the early Church councils to see how the Christological was often understood through a Marian dimension (for more on this, type Theotokos into the search bar at the top of my blog, or see here for example). Mariology helps us to comprehend what is truly unique about the Incarnation.

Christ does not resemble Muhammed or Socrates or Buddha. He is totally original and unique. The uniqueness of Christ as indicated by Peter's words at Caesarea Phillipi, is the centre of the Church's faith, as expressed by the Creed: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." This creedal expression of our faith is more than mere hellenisation, it constitutes the fundamental apostolic heritage handed down to us from St. John and St. Paul, as Fr. Kevin pointed out in his homily for the VI th Sunday of Easter.

The International Mass
One of the main reasons we go on pilgrimage to somewhere like Lourdes is prayer and I was honoured to carry the petitions of many friends to the grotto on this occasion. Of course prayer is a verification of our self-realisation that we are religious beings, capable of putting ourselves in contact with God. In this context, the ambiance at the grotto at Lourdes never ceases to strike me as somewhat remarkable. Certainly I feel it is a place where it is so easy to pray; to commune with the divine, and the words seem to just fall out of me, my prayer a cosmic function, where, as Pope St. John Paul II says, I speak in the name of all creation, but only insofar as I am guided by the Spirit.
"The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but for the Spirit Himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (cf Rom 8:26).
The sorrows we carry with us through life become so much an intrinsic dimension to our being that we can sometimes only groan inexpressibly, imploring the almighty to free us from their burden, and our own self-loathing for our failures and inadequacies. At Lourdes, there is something which somehow makes this transaction easier. Perhaps it is the focus which travelling to a particular place on pilgrimage gives you. Everyone at Lourdes is there for the same reasons; love of Christ, a desire to deepen their faith, to commune with the Holy Trinity, to ask for help, to ask for healing. We are united in faith and united in prayer. Where is this more evident than at the torchlight procession for example?

The children light a candle for the parish and pray over it at the end of the torchlight procession.
I recall many previous pilgrimages with my friend Mike Sheaf, an experienced leader with ACROSS who always used to say at the grotto you could watch the group and see little explosions going on, like spiritual hand grenades which brought forth realisations, revelations, and emotional outpourings in an extraordinary and unique way. So much so that it changed people's lives. Are such awakenings the real miracles of a pilgrimage to the shrine of Lourdes?

Contemplating the apparition image at midnight in the grotto in the rain.
One of my most stark insights of this Lourdes Pilgrimage has been the undeniable reality of a Universal Church. This is clearly manifest when you arrive, but I had not noticed it so clearly on previous visits. Perhaps after my recent adventures in Anglo-catholicism, this was presented in stark relief to assist my considerations about what constitutes "catholic" in terms of the marks of the true Church. While some argue about this or consider that the notion of "church" is more a spiritual reality, here we see the physical and spiritual manifestation of this reality, gathered together; many nations, colours, ages, all united in belief and purpose. It constituted a powerful witness and also an invitation to our separated brethren to stop procrastinating and join with us. We are stronger together (cf. Matthew 12:25)

I found this reality was clear immediately on arrival: in the hotel, we found ourselves in the wonderfully eclectic company of groups of pilgrims from Italy and Spain. The multinational quality of the gathering pilgrims is evident throughout the town, but never more so than at the International Mass, when the huge underground basilica of Pius X which can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, was virtually full to capacity with Catholics from all over the world.

The Mass was said by numerous priests and quite a few bishops. The main celebrant was Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba of Burkina Faso. I have to say he said a beautiful Mass, and there was an incredible sense of the world united in Christ. The Gospel was preached in the vernacular, but the liturgy of the Eucharist was virtually all in Latin, and the entire congregation were united in the universal language of the universal Church.

I have often thought the Catholic faith has achieved so much in terms of world unity. When you consider that, in Christ, over 2 billion people are united, you have to realise this is an achievement unrivaled in all of human history, and something to be celebrated. Rather than feel sad about the undeniable separation in the Christian Church, you start to see the extent to which we have fulfilled Christ's words …"Ut unum sint" more than through any other Christian communion or ecclesial body. I think this means it is clear, therefore, that we can have confidence in the Church's call to true ecumenism as a call to truth and unity.

You can really feel it at an event like this and I do feel joy for my Ordinariate brothers and sisters who must be elated now to be completely a part of this universal Church of Christ, as well as a deep longing that our separated brethren might find the way to the Barque of Peter too!

Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba of Burkina Faso presides over the liturgy at the International Mass.
I had the honour of carrying our beautiful parish banner in the parade for the International Mass and also leading in our children. You can watch the whole Mass here although I'm not sure how long it will be up for! The banner parade is right at the beginning. My son John particularly loved this bit. The venue is truly extraordinary and on a huge scale. It is supposed to represent a huge upturned boat, like Noah's Ark, a which design creates a very large open space, of 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft), for maximum visibility from any part of the nave.

That's me holding the banner with some of our pilgrims, after the International Mass.
Any pilgrimage like this offers an opportunity to share our faith with each other and even revel in our shared belief. I felt this dimension was particularly evident on this pilgrimage. We had some really beautiful little Masses, and numerous discussions about faith, some, I will admit, taking place in the hotel bar once the children had gone to bed. The pilgrimage provided a useful environment where people felt comfortable asking questions and discussing attitudes and doctrine. The emergent theme seemed to be, for me, the humility of Bernadette and a real revisiting of the story. We visited the Moulin de Boly, Le Cachot, and gazed on the statue in the basilica which St. Bernadette said most resembled the apparition:

The image of Our Lady which Bernadette said most resembled the apparitions. The statue that currently stands in the niche within the grotto of Massabielle was created by the Lyonnais sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch in 1864. Although it has become an iconographic symbol of Our Lady of Lourdes, it depicts a figure which is not only older and taller than Bernadette's description, but also more in keeping with orthodox and traditional representations of the Virgin Mary. On seeing the statue, Bernadette was profoundly disappointed with this representation of her vision.

At Le Cachot, you get a real sense of the decline of the fortunes of the Soubirous family. Bernadette's father, François was a good man and was never in a hurry about being paid, especially by his poorest customers. Through the interesting & detailed instruction of our guide, Damian from Anam Cara travel, which included interesting facts and anecdotes about village life in Lourdes, it was possible to build a detailed picture of the family and their faith at the time. It must have been incredibly hard to cling to hope when the family's fortunes just seemed to decline further and further. However, one of the important things for Bernadette in her daily life was her faith. She knew nothing about the catechism, but that did not stop her being brought up as a Christian. She knew the "Our Father" in French as well as the "Hail, Mary". She always carried her rosary beads.

At the museum in the town, we were able to go through the apparitions one by one and ask questions about the details. Some things I had forgotten; Dr. Douzous the doctor present at the apparition on the 7th April witnessing a candle licking up Bernadette's hand as she prayed, yet her flesh remained unburnt. The rose bush which blossomed in March. The apparition's confirmation of the doctrinal formulation of Mary's sinless conception.

One of the most poignant dimensions to the story is that after the apparitions, Bernadette is determined to dedicate her whole life to God. From 4th to 7th July 1866, Bernadette travelled to Nevers. This was the first and last time that Bernadette took a train and left the Pyrenees. After telling the story of the Apparitions Bernadette removes her bonnet and puts on the cape of a postulant making it clear that she had come there to "hide herself". She rejected the notoriety the miracles at the grotto had brought her and sought only to be with Jesus.

Bernadette was home sick. She would say, "This is the greatest sacrifice of my life". She overcame this uprooting with courage as well as humour. She also undertook this new stage without any looking back: "My mission in Lourdes is ended." "Lourdes is not heaven." Together with 42 other postulants, she took the religious habit on 29th July 1866, three weeks after her arrival. She was given the name Sister Marie-Bernarde. She referred to herself as "the broom placed behind the door once it has been used."

In September 1866, her asthma became worse. In October 1866, her condition was deteriorating.
Doctor Robert Saint-Cyr, the doctor to the community, said that she would not last the night.
Mother Marie-Therese decided that Bernadette should make her profession "in danger of death". She survived the night. In December 1866, she learned of the death of her mother at the age of 41.

On 2nd February 1867, Bernadette recovered and returned to the novitiate and she made her profession in the hands of Bishop Forcade on 30th October 1867. She committed herself to living a life of poverty, chastity obedience and charity. Each professed received a crucifix, a copy of the Constitutions and a letter of obedience and her work in the religious house. Bernadette was assigned to the mother-house as a nursing assistant. In 1869, her health problems returned. In March 1871, she learned of the death of her father. From 1875 to 1878, her illness progressed. In this condition she made her final vows. On 11th December 1878, she was finally confined to bed in the white chapel as she referred to her bed with its white curtains and she died on 16th April 1879. On 30th May 1879, her coffin was placed in the tomb of the Oratory of St. Joseph. A short life, filled with physical suffering, and lacking any physical comfort, and yet one imagines that her utter joy in experiencing visions of Our Lady must have given her great peace and added confidence, safe in the knowledge that Our Blessed Mother would keep her promise to her "I cannot promise you happiness in this life, but in the next."

This promise focuses our attention on the metaphysical dimension to all our lives which seems profoundly absent these days. We are hedging our bets about the next life, considering that if there is a God, He will have mercy on each of us despite our wrong-doing, despite our habitual sin, despite our "white-lies" and failure to acknowledge Him, listen to Him, or to keep His commandments. In contrast, the message of Lourdes is "Penance, penance, penance, pray for sinners". By penance we understand conversion. Conversion in the Church, as we learn from Christ, involves turning our heart towards God and towards others. "Pray for sinners". Praying brings us to the Spirit of God. Thus we understand that sin does not make us happy. We must understand that sin is something that is contrary to the love of God that is revealed to us through the Gospel.

The message of Lourdes challenges each one of us to look at our lives in the context of prayer, that is, contingent and in the perspective of our relationship with God, and to have the courage and fortitude of Bernadette Soubirous, to accept the love offered us by the Father, and to change our lives, to convert and conform to Him, who is the source and summit of all that is right and good in creation.

There were many little things that made this trip special for me. Going with my youngest son John and having a chance to spend some time with him walking through the streets of the town, at Mass, and just sitting at the grotto.

John at the Grotto.
Also being joined by my mum and Louise's two aunts, Una and Kath was also really special. I felt privileged to be in their company for a few days. Kath hadn't been to Lourdes since the centenary celebrations in 1958. It was fascinating to hear about that trip and how much the town had changed since then. Una has recently lost her husband, our beloved Uncle Neil, and it was wonderful to be with her and to be able to remember Neil and pray for him at the Grotto. I had travelled here with Neil when he was well and a helper. He was an incredibly caring man, something I think he didn't show very obviously to others. He just would quietly be there and help anyone who needed it. He was better known for being the life and soul of the party, and so it was very moving to reflect on my previous pilgrimage with him whilst I was there with his wonderful wife.

From left to right; Kath, Mum and Una at the Grotto.
This was also my first pilgrimage to Lourdes with Fr. Kevin who is a dear and valued friend, and a truly holy priest, who takes so much care of his flock, I just feel so lucky to know him. He was tireless on this trip, I told him he was a "pilgrimage machine", and carried fellow traveller's cases, pushed pilgrims, and still said beautiful Masses, and gave relevant and inspiring homilies. He prayed devotedly for the parishioners we had left back in Leigh-on-Sea, and inspired me with his faith and dedication. Similarly Margaret Sullivan, the Head Teacher of our Junior School and a dear friend, cares so much about the children in her care, and knows each one of them so well. She is great fun to have a round and a great inspiration. I always feel safe and comfortable in their company.

Is that St. Dom Bosco in the middle there?
Of course we also had a fair number of children with us. They always enliven any pilgrimage and I have to say they were excellently behaved. It was fascinating to hear their questions and enquiries and see how the Lourdes story affected them. They were amazing during the Masses and walked in the parade with me at the International Mass. They also helped with our pilgrims, pushing wheelchairs, always eager to help. I look forward to hearing how they have processed the trip when once they have returned and had some time to reflect.

All in all in was an extraordinarily good trip and as usual, I find myself reliving and finding more in reflection having arrived safely at home. The group's composition provided an excellent opportunity for stimulating theological reflection, prayer, fun, and chat.


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