Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Pilgrimage to Lourdes

Father John J. Lombardi

Recently I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, site of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858. You may ask: What is a pilgrimage? The word pilgrimage comes from the Latin, pergirnata, meaning "a stranger." (Cf. Heb 11: 13: "They (Abraham and others) acknowledged themselves to be strangers on Earth…"). A Pilgrimage is "A journey to a sacred place undertaken as an act of religious devotion, either simply in order to venerate it or to ask the fulfillment of some need or as an act of penance or thanksgiving…"(D Atwater: "A Catholic Dictionary").

When making a pilgrimage one should want to grow closer to God: go from being a stranger of God to a friend of God. In a sentence, we may sum up: Turn away from sin and turn toward Him-the Lord. Following are observations and reflections of this recent pilgrimage…

Kindness of Strangers: After much travel (and some travail-getting lost, etc) we arrived at Lourdes late at night. Upon arriving--tired, needing help with our schedule, stuck with a car and few parking spaces, faced with an early morning of activities, wondering if we had a room at the inn so late--a beautiful, elderly Irish lady, Dorothy, helped us. She was instantaneously gracious, warm and helpful, alleviating all of our challenges: she personally parked our car, showed us our rooms, helped with our baggage and smiled the whole time. After such a long trip she was a warm and welcoming angel to us. We agreed: this was not only her job but her vocation-to help pilgrims arrive and focus on their pilgrimage. This was her life-helping others become holy. Reflection: How can you help strangers and others to feel at home and accomplish their goals?...

Oneness thru Prayer: We eventually met Pope John Paul in Lourdes-along with a half million others! We were across the river Gave from the Grotto where the Pope arrived and prayed. My fellow pilgrims, Fathers Farmer and Livigni, and I were waiting his arrival to this beautiful shrine. Amidst the hours of waiting for the Pope's arrival, a choir sang, people jostled for positions, the brilliant sun shone, melting people as exhilaration grew. People from all over the world gathered, but the only thing we all had in common was waiting for the Pope. Otherwise we were a diverse lot. As soon as the choir began singing the hymn "Immaculate Mary" with the refrain "Ave Maria," this diverse and disparate lot was immediately united as everyone began singing with the choir, bringing a Mystical-Body oneness to the diversity. Love of Mary brought us together. R: How can the Virgin Mary and prayer help you to unite others in your life?

Transparency and Tears: The Pope finally arrived and everyone grew more ecstatic. We were told later the Pope cried as he prayed at the Grotto below the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (we couldn't see being so far away). Tears visibly fell from his face like liquid amulets-he wept openly bowing his head before the Virgin. Perhaps he was crying because of the beauty of the Grotto and Lourdes statue; or due to the profoundness of the story of St Bernadette and "The Lady." Perhaps it was because of his need of healing, or that "the gift of tears" graced him after experiencing this life's vale of tears thru his dramatic life and papacy. Maybe all the above…R: How can "seeing Mary" help you melt barriers and enable you to become more transparent to God?

After his visit the huge crowd dispersed until afternoon. It was a kind of "beautiful chaos" as one person described such events-a mesmerizing myriad of pilgrims jammed together, crossing paths and seeking goals in such a small place, yet with seeming calm and peace. Later in the day we gathered to pray the Rosary with the Pope. A hundred priests were united around the St John Vianney statue near the Grotto (he was the French priest who is the patron of parish priests and is known for tirelessly hearing confessions all his life). As the Pope approached us priests we were immediately magnetized toward him and intuitively took a step forward to see him closer. Praying that decade he looked at times wide awake, and at other times weak and wearied. One time he looked directly at us-eyes wide open, with a gentle face, slight smile and sense of keenness-beautiful and soft, as the sunlight fell upon him. You realized two things at this instant: here was a holy man and a soul of suffering… R: How can you be both holy and longsuffering to inspire others? How can you pray the Rosary to gain strength and discipline in your life?

Still later in the evening the Holy Father led a candlelight procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the grounds of the Grotto. Later, as I prayed in a chapel, I thought: How can he do all this? What an inspiration! ...R: We all need fortitude-stick-to-it-ness: How can you practice this virtue?

Mass on Sunday was glorious. There were several hundred priests and almost a half million people under a wide open, sunny French sky for the Sabbath Assumption. A long procession formed, musicians played and choirs sang, security guards guarded the Pope who passed right by us priests. What was most impressive about all this? The sick. Of the hundreds of thousands gathered for the Mass, those closest to the altar and the Pope were the maladies (sick persons as the French term has it) in wheel chairs and special cots, under the shade of nearby trees. The Pope himself came essentially as a sick person amidst sick persons-seeking to honor the Virgin and to find comfort. Lourdes is about healing-pilgrims with sick bodies encountering Mary's Immaculate body. One person said it was inspiring how they (the Lourdes officials) took such good and prominent care of the sick. R: How can you help the sick and tend to Jesus in His wounds today? (cf. Mt. 25: 36).

Preach without Preaching: After the Pope left, my pilgrimage friend, Fr Jim Farmer, asked: "What was the main message of the Pope at Lourdes? He couldn't speak or move well, he was fatigued: What was his message?" After a pause, he answered his own question: "Presence." In other words: the body and soul speak without speaking, sometimes in silence, by quiet perseverance. The Pope was a living, heroic witness of fortitude, and continual conversion. He showed us suffering should not be embarrassing; but, for us Catholics it can become a gift-as exemplified by St Bernadette and others, it can be a little flower-costly but sweet, that we can offer the Lord. The Virgin said to her at Lourdes: "I do not promise you happiness in this life but in the next." R: How can you, like the Pope and saints, offer your suffering to God to redeem souls and the world?

Later on Sunday night after such a "beautiful chaos," security and crowdedness, I finally got to visit the Grotto itself. At 10pm there were still thousands of people there! But, no matter. I finally arrived and was close--close enough. People were prayerfully milling all around, under the Cliffside, and before the Grotto cave where St Bernadette saw the Virgin. Some were sitting with heads bowed; others gazed at the statue and the large basilica church above the place where the Virgin said: "Build a church in my honor on this spot." It was beautifully alit in the Pyrenees-mountain night. Some pilgrims were standing with hands folded, while others lie prostrate on the ground. I was inspired by all this. I looked up at the Grotto and saw the words of the Virgin to St Bernadette, in French: Que Soy Era Immaculata Conceptiou-I am the Immaculate Conception.

I kneeled down and prayed, lifted my head, observed others praying, gazed at the haunting statue, and prayed more. I thought of how the Virgin Mary, in this appearance to St Bernadette, manifested herself as a beautiful, radiant, lovely-to-behold creature of God ("Immaculate") , not tainted by human sin or pollution of any kind. She shows God's promise (and original plan) of the harmony and holiness of body and soul united, a perfect instrument of God. Though we certainly are sinners (Rm 3:23), the Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (the Pope was commemorating the 150th anniversary of this at Lourdes) and the Assumption, call us to perfection of body and soul, delicacy and lightness of spirit and matter, holistic incarnated spiritual perfection and supernatural glory. Mary received a singular, special grace and revealed this to St Bernadette; we can receive grace to become like her. God gave a pattern; now it is our part to become vessels of beauty, light and peace. In meditation we may want to pray within: Be Immaculate within. Become, like Mary, what you are supposed to be-what God intends-pure, holy and beautiful.

But the Virgin of Lourdes knew many people are enslaved to sin--the opposite of beauty and purity--and so she asked Bernadette to pray and do penance for sinners-to free them. Mary knew that Bernadette's-and our-actions/penances can help others. We are all linked in the Mystical Body of Christ (cf. Rm 12, I Cor 12 and 13). Penances are hard things to repair the harm done by the wages of sin. Penances-fasting, praying, works of mercy, etc., show that we are really serious about conversion to grace and love of others, and not just lighthearted about our Faith. Though we certainly cannot work our way to heaven, "Faith working thru Love" counts for being in Christ (Gal 5:6)…R: How can you do penances for your sins and others?

Spring Bath: A custom of visiting Lourdes is to bathe in the miraculous spring-waters which flow near the Cave. This Spring is a sign of Mary's love when St Bernadette began digging there, in the dry soil, and, volia!, water appeared. It continues to flow and heal pilgrims to this day. When visiting there it was almost impossible to get in the "baths" which now come from the miraculous Spring. My fellow pilgrim traveler, Fr Jim Farmer waited and waited, hoping to immerse himself in the spring water. But he could not stay due to an upcoming Mass and departure from Lourdes. As he began to leave the long, winding line (dressed in his clerical clothes), a French man, way in front of him, gave up his place, saying, in his essence: "Pere (Father), here, you take my place. I was here 25 years ago and can wait; you go into the waters." Father Farmer was astounded by the man's love and sacrifice. Consequently, he was able to bathe in this famous, healing water and bring his petitions to the Lord and Blessed Lady-by that man's great love. Therefore he left Lourdes a different man…R: How can you sacrifice for others?

Remember: The point of a pilgrimage is not length or miles traveled, or famousnesses of shrines visited, but the depth and intensity of love you engender during it for God. R: How can you make a pilgrimage in your life and turn

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi