On Thursday, 11 February 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a beautiful young lady in a niche at a rocky outcrop called Massabielle, a short distance from the town of Lourdes. She was near a wild rose bush and surrounded by a brilliant light and a golden cloud, smiling, with her arms extended towards Bernadette, who took out her rosary beads.
When she had finished praying the rosary the apparition beckoned to her, but Bernadette did not move and the lady smiled at her before disappearing. She later described how she had seen a young lady of about her height, clothed in a brilliant and unearthly white robe, with a blue girdle around her waist and a white veil on her head. This was the beginning of a whole sequence of apparitions, 18 in all, which occurred during the spring and early summer of 1858.
Mary first spoke to Bernadette on 18 February when she asked her if she would come to the grotto for a fortnight. Thursday, 25 February, saw a crowd of about 300, and the discovery that was to make Lourdes famous, that of the miraculous spring in the grotto.
I had the good fortune of visiting Lourdes three times. The experience remains vivid in my mind.
A different world
Crossing St Michael’s Bridge over the river La Gave and setting foot beyond the gate at the entrance of the complex of the Lourdes Grotto, you immediately feel the atmosphere of a different world. Each step towards the Grotto is a step away from a world of consumerism and materialism, leading to a distinct environment of spiritual bliss interwoven with a strong experience of love, fraternity and solidarity.
The experience at the Grotto strikes you deeply. Soon enough you become aware that Our Lady gathers people at the Grotto to bring them closer to her Son. Hovering over the heads of the devotees of all ages and origins, you feel like sensing the soothing breath of a spirit of holiness. It brings to mind the strong but pleasant breeze Bernadette felt on the 11 February 1858, the first time the Virgin Mary appeared to her.
The people visiting the Grotto with fervent devotion, praying before the statue of Our Lady, lighting up candles, drinking from the water of the spring or washing their face while asking God to purify their hearts, flock from different countries, cultures, traditions and languages. Yet, there exists no language barrier at the Grotto. They all speak the same language of faith.
When one joins the queue of people silently walking in prayer towards the interior of the Grotto to see closely the place where Mary appeared to Bernadette, one immediately understands why the pilgrims’ hands are never tired of seeking to touch the damp rock of the cave.
In the Grotto you feel Mary’s shelter. You feel the solace of the Mother of Love always ready to ask the Good Lord to have mercy and forgive.
One particular scene I remember happened at sunset. The hush around the Grotto was interrupted only by the soft sound of the running water of the river and the whispering of birds retiring to the trees at the end of a beautiful day. A young woman encroached on her knees, with her head touching the ground, was amidst the praying pilgrims in front of the Grotto. For a long period of time she stood still. I imagined her living the same experience as Bernadette.
As soon as the sun set, the Marian Hymn transmitted on the loudspeakers called the crowd to the aux flambeaux recital of the Rosary. The people gathered for the procession.
The light of love
During the aux flambeaux procession, the sick, carried on wheelchairs or carriages, lead the way. The Hail Mary is recited on the loudspeakers, in different languages, often also in Maltese. Each member of the gathering answers in his own language.
As the light of the sun fades away, the Marian Procession transforms itself into a stream of lit candles moving towards the main square.
A stanza from a Marian Hymn is sung at the end of every Rosary decade. The greeting Ave Maria Gratia Plaena is also sung. At this point, sick and pilgrims raise their lit candles as a further sign of their affection and reverence towards Mary. One again feels the presence of a spirit of holiness hovering around to foster in all those present, irrespective of their condition, the warm light of God. The light of the aux flambeaux becomes a light of love.
On the faces of the sick and those with a disability, who flock to Lourdes inspired by their faith, one sees the signs of an inner bliss overcoming the marks of pain and weariness. Walking in the footsteps of Bernadette, who was herself a sickly person, the sick discover or are reinforced in the way of hope.
One cannot overlook, when speaking to the sick, their desire that their pilgrimage to Lourdes helps them overcome their affliction or be able to carry their cross with less suffering. However, above all their words reflect their profound desire that in Lourdes they succeed in recharging the batteries of their spiritual strength and experience a deep communion of fraternity and prayer with others.
At the fore, giving a helping hand to the sick to share in this experience of love, one finds the volunteers, young and old – helpers, nurses and doctors – who travel to Lourdes with the specific aim of giving a service to the weak, irrespective of identity or origin, leaving behind self-interest and often making remarkable personal sacrifices. The service given by these youths and adults, who top the 70,000 mark every year, is like a never-ending spring of generosity which of itself is comforting and encouraging to the sick.
During the procession aux flambeaux, one encounters and tastes an extraordinary experience of hundreds of united hearts brimming with emotion and sharing a unique milieu of love and harmony, which culminates in the chorus of the Salve Regina.
Reaching Jesus through Mary
The spirit of holiness in Lourdes pushes you constantly towards a new birth in Christ. This is felt at the most during the Celebration of the Eucharistic. Be it a mass in front of the Grotto, or a mass in the enormous underground basilica dedicated to St Pius X, or in any one of the other churches and chapels found in the complex, you experience an overriding feeling that the Immaculate Conception is moving you and leading you softly and gently towards Jesus.
You feel Mary endeavouring to bring you closer to Jesus also during the Eucharistic Procession where prayers for the sick and healthy are made, in different languages, so that God helps men recognise the way to follow Christ in the paths of love.
The blessing of the sick at the end of this procession, not only adds to the beautiful experience of solidarity of the healthy with the weak, but also brings to the fore the Christian witness given by those carrying the burden of sickness.
His head lowered in front of the Holy Eucharist, the sick person unites his suffering to that of Christ, while in unison, and like Mary, he says to the Lord, “Let it be done to me according to thy will.”
The bread of life
In the same way that at Lourdes you feel Mary stretching out her hand to you to take you to Jesus, at Lourdes you also feel Jesus inviting you to see Him in your neighbour, and follow the footsteps of those who give witness to their love towards others through their help to the weak.
This spirit of holiness makes its power felt within you even more if you have the opportunity to visit the chapel situated in the old warehouse where Mgr Rodhain, founder of Secours Catholique and the Cite' Saint Pierre, died. This is the place where, through the assistance of volunteers striving for peace and solidarity among men, pilgrims short of money and not affording to pay for their stay in a hotel in Lourdes are welcomed free of charge.
The tabernacle in the chapel is found in the scale of a balance which carries in the other scale some kernels of wheat and a globe. Acting as a bridge between the two scales holding the material food of this world and the divine food of the Body of Christ, one finds that section of the Gospel where Jesus teaches us to welcome our neighbour, share with him the bread we have, and help him in his difficulties or suffering.
During those few touching moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament in that old chapel, it dawned on me in a more profound way that one has to taste the spirit of holiness of Lourdes, in order to realise how captivating this spirit is.
No wonder most of the millions of people who travel to Lourdes go back, some for several times.