Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Meditations on Love of Lourdes

Father John J. Lombardi

I recently made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Lourdes is a mystical place. The Blessed Virgin appeared there 150 years ago, in a trash dump, to a poor peasant-girl named Bernadette who lived in a converted jail cell. …

I went at the invitation from a group called the Knights of Malta­men and women committed to the Catholic Church and also serving especially the poor. Briefly, on this Mother’s Day, some highlights of our Mother-Lady’s Shrine: Lourdes is physically a beautiful place­the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains hover nearby the town. Bestowing a medieval feel, a thousand year old fort is on the town’s local mountain, lit up at night. The beautiful Gave River flows thru Lourdes out of the mountains. The town itself has charming aspects­little alleyways with cafes, small plazas of cobblestone and old homes and an intimate- cosmopolitan feel with all the locals and visitors mixed in.

Then there’s the Shrine itself: the Virgin statue (like we have in our own Shrine here in Emmitsburg) hovers in the niche­half visible and kinda evocatively receding and reticent. Hundreds and thousands of pilgrims usually gather around this sacred spot where Bernadette saw Mary, who told the little girl to pray, do penance and seek the Lord. Other highlights include the daily Masses we went to­sometimes with thousands attending; a 2 hour long procession with 20,000 people; taking a hike in the Pyrenees mountain foothills.

There was also the meal-times together of all our Maltaese pilgrimage group­having some fun and laughs relaxing after a long day. And one of my favorite experiences: seeing "McConnel"­a golden Labrador retriever going to communion, up to the altar, with his master, a blind priest form California. Both of them were always so calm and centered, content, amidst all the hubbub of people and processions. Someone said the dog must be the holiest dog around­going to all those masses!

Then there were all the pilgrims from Italy, Croatia, France, Germany, the Philippines, India. One of my favorite things to do was go the Grotto­and prayerfully watch all these various pilgrims go up to the Cave, walk within­in a holy hushed silence. Meanwhile, other pilgrims were nearby praying the rosary; some might be lighting candles and elsewhere some kids might be playing nearby. All this combined to form a kind of sacred "parade of life"­all under the Virgin’s gaze.

When I first read about the mission of our Maltese pilgrimage group in an email, I thought: This group’s for me: The mission stated that the pilgrimage would be roughly one-third work; one third prayer, one third fun (including some wine with meals-and ice cream!). The main mission, though, was each individual pursuing his/her own

spirituality (getting in touch with the Virgin and Lord; prayer; turning away from sin,etc.), and also ministering to the malades­about 70 sick persons who were specially invited and accompanied by Knight-volunteers. Each day the assigned volunteer would meet the malade and pull him or her in a small cart to the Grotto or to Mass, or a visitation site. The volunteers were noble and assiduous. One young man was assigned to a priest who was elderly and in the process of losing his mental and physical faculties. The volunteer helped dress, the priest get dressed, help him on the small elevator, help him with his meals, bring him to the Grotto in the cart, and do lots of special errands: I was impressed by this volunteer’s serious and spiritual concern . He mentioned some of the challenges in helping the priest and then said, nonchalantly, that this was his "special mission" and purpose on the pilgrimage

Our hotel (San Sauver, Holy Savior) was only a hundred yards away from the main gate of the Lourdes Domain. When you walk to the entrance you pass by street cafes (people having a beer or coffee) and also lots of gift shops. I’ve heard reports and complaints about this commercialization in the past from pilgrims but, for some reason, this has never bothered me­it’s just seems "part of the terrain," or " the mesh of life" here­and it’s never been invasive to me. Contrarily, it kinda manifests a festival spirit of life to me. After entering the Grotto you go down a small hill and come to an esplanade which reveals a most beautiful gothic basilica, of the Holy Rosary, complete with spires and decorations, and on the other side a tall statue of the Virgin of Lourdes, lit up marvelously at night, and beautifully noble and serene­with a golden crown on top. Then there’s the beautiful Gave River, whose sources is in the Pyrenees and speed is fluent thru the town. It is a luminescent green color, because of it’s unadulterated mountain source and is, of course cold. Last time I visited I bathed in it as I could not get to the baths (Pope John Paul was visiting then and there was a gigantic crowd)

I eventually went into the Cave of the Grotto and walk thru like other pilgrims. I noticed everyone putting their left hand up against the wall of the cave, touching and rubbing it­apparently to connect with The Original Event (the Apparitions of 1858) or to receive holy blessings, or... It seemed both mysterious and heartwarming for me and us­nothing you could explain rationally but, you somehow understood and appreciated in your heart what you were doing. As you walked thru the Cave you saw the original gurgling spring where Bernadette dug and came to this blessed water. You eventually walk under the Virgin-statue and exit the Cave itself.

The candlelight processions at night are famous in Lourdes. Twenty or thirty thousand people gathered the night we attended. For some strange-spiritual reason it is surprising that, while there are tons of people, and seemingly few ushers or security people, there is an elegant calmness and harmony of crowds­perhaps because everyone is there to pray. Anyway, most people carry a lit candle, and there are lots of malades who receive prized spots in the procession, some even on stretchers, and prayers are broadcast in five languages of Lourdes­English, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Spanish .There is music played between the decades of the Rosary, with children and adult choirs alternatively singing, and no matter the language you can always sing the "Ave Maria" which is the traditional Lourdes song­and everyone knows­or learns this­and they all hold up candles during it. The procession weaves up away from the Grotto and basilica and down a long avenue and then back down again to the Grotto where it finishes. It is a tremendously inspiring feeling to pray with thousands of others, young and old, from so many different countries and yet be united in the Lord and Lady

Other blessings:

One morning we had Mass in the Grotto­which is quite a feat. I couldn’t’ believe we were there­as some of the pilgrims wait an hour to visit there just for thirty seconds. That was a great spiritual treat. The last day of the pilgrimage I got "inside information" of how to volunteer at the baths. We had the privilege of helping wash men who were seeking grace and favor in the cool waters of Lourdes. This is a custom whereby a man is lowered with the help of two other folks, into a long bath-basin. Some of the pilgrims were handicapped and disabled severely­they couldn’t talk or walk. One guy, Angelo, form Italy, smiled the whole time and giggled chid-like, until, that is, we put him the cold bath. We prayed with each pilgrim (Hail Mary and so forth) and invited them to kiss a Virgin of Lourdes statue, held their hands and arms and then plunged them in the Lourdes healing water (all the way up to their neck). Many were silent, others shrieked as they plunged; some were a bit: timid. I was stuck by the volunteers who were assisting the pilgrims in doing this­four elderly Frenchmen. I thought, what is causing them to do this. Simple, I guess: Our Lord and Lady, our religion. I was arduous work­sometimes lifting a couple hundred pounds up and down, and clothing the pilgrims –but they always did it reverently and with gentility. They always prayed with the men, even if they couldn’t pray out loud or were disabled. When we finished at the baths a gentleman asked me, point blank: what’s a one-word description of working at the baths? I immediately answered: intensity. After hours of being in there, praying, washing, bathing, assisting, in small intimate quarters. I walked out tired-yet-refreshed He seemed to agree.

One of the most profound remarks I heard on our pilgrimage was someone who said that, Isn’t it ironic, how in our beloved country­USA, there is such preoccupation and precedence put on outward appearance, health, bodily god- and goddess image and botox treatments, face lifts and so many are striving for this. And yet: here is Lourdes, it’s the direct opposite: the poor, sick, lame, handicapped and disabled, quadriplegics and needy are welcomed, praised and given special treatment and care. Wow. True: it’s the world upside down­and, as one person said, the way it’s supposed to be!

Eucharistic Procession: One Sunday afternoon we gathered across the Gave River with Cardinal Mahoney (of Los Angeles) and some other bishops . There were malades and knights and dames of Malta from all over the world. It was, fortunately, a beautiful day. It took us over an hour just to get started in the procession from the time the first participants began. Wow­well, that was my holy hour! We then processed thru the esplanade and down a long avenue to the Pius X Basilica a huge cavern of a church underground. All of twenty thousand of us! After some initial prayers in there---and tons of incense wafting thru the air­there was complete silence­I couldn’t believe it­so many and yet such sweet silence. Except, of course, some of the malades making a shriek here or there­to remind us, I guess, just why we were there­to seek healing and pray for one another in mystical solidarity. …If you ever have the opportunity to go to Lourdes: GO! You will receive many graces and blessing from Our lord and Lady and encounter a mystical, magical place unique in all the earth.

Pentecost Sunday is today: The Birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and caused them to speak in fascinating ways. This feast and the readings show the universality of the Lord’s Catholic Church (Acts 2:1-11); the giving of spiritual Gifts thru the Holy Spirit ( I Cor. 12: 3-7,12-13); and also Jesus Christ bestowing the Holy Spirit thru His sacred Breath upon the Apostles (Jn. 20:19-23). God is more interior to us than we can know­for He is the Spirit dwelling within. Do you know the Holy Spirit? Do you pray to Him regularly? Do you participate with His graces to manifest fruits He desires to give (see Gal. 5:22ff­love joy peace, etc.). So, pray: Come Holy Ghost, Creator Blest/ And in our Hearts take up Thy rest./ Come with Thy grace and heavenly aid/ To fill the hearts which Thou hast made…

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi