Thursday, May 08, 2008

At the Grotto

Last week, the French bishops announced that, after a quick stop in Paris, Papa Ratzi would be spending three days at Lourdes in the early fall.

Marking the 150th anniversary observances of what's arguably the world's most-famous Marian shrine, the 12-15 September pilgrimage will be Benedict's first major undertaking after the summer... and his first visit to France as Pope.

For all the special sesquicentennial events -- including 12 global missions to highlight the various aspects of the shrine's dominant spirit -- the past days saw one of the calendar's big mainstays return to the grotto: the annual pilgrimage of the US-based Knights and Dames of Malta. Among the chaplains in attendance was America's Jim Martin SJ, who filed his impressions of the experience on the mag's blog:
This year is also a "Jubilee Year" in Lourdes, marking the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, a poor girl living in squalor in the small town in Southern France. Signs of the Jubilee were everywhere--mainly in the gargantuan number of people. Yet despite the massive crowds, life in Lourdes was, as always, cheerful, calm and well organized. (Compare that, as I did, to my first sight of Penn Station in New York yesterday afternoon, where, despite far fewer numbers, people seemed much grumpier, and your appreciation for what happens in Lourdes deepens considerably.)

Lourdes is a marvelous mix of pomp and simplicity. For the former, there are few places outside Rome that can match the pageantry of the Pontifical Masses celebrated in the vast underground concrete church (excuse me, The Basilica of St. Pius X). That worship space, the site of the largest Masses in town, is saved from looking like a 1960s parking lot only by the immense banners with pictures of saints from around the world. (I seem to forever find myself seated under one of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei.) Besides 25,000 pilgrims (yes, you read that number correctly) hundreds of priests and deacons, the assembled hierarchs included Cardinals Pio Laghi and Roger Mahony, not to mention Archbishops George Niederauer of San Francisco and Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, and Bishops William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., William Murphy of Rockville Center, N.Y., and Michael Cote of Portland, Maine [sic -- a native of the Lobster State, Cote is currently bishop of Norwich].... At Sunday's Mass, Fra Matthew Festing, the Order's new Grand Master, offered the prayer of the Order of Malta, in Latin, and though the good-natured Englishman confessed that his command of the language was no better than that of an "idle schoolboy," it sounded good to me.

As in the rest of the Catholic church, in Lourdes the personal lives alongside the public, and the powerful rubs up against the powerless (though who is who is always a good question). At the center are what Bishop William Curlin, retired bishop of Charlotte, N.C. always calls "our beloved malades." (The term, which means the "sick person" is not pejorative in Lourdes.) On our pilgrimage this year I met dozens of faithful malades, their families and friends, as well as the Knights and Dames of Malta, who were there to help lead the malades to the baths, push their carts so that they could get a good spot in the Grotto of the Apparitions for Mass, fetch them a drink of water, make sure that they got their coffee and croissants in the morning, and, most of all, pray with them....

The best part of the trip? That's easy: being with the generous Knights and Dames, the volunteers and companions, and especially the malades. All the malades came to Lourdes for different reasons and were at different places with their illnesses (this year I heard anger for the first time, which struck me as bracingly honest and real). But all were hoping for some sort of healing---physical, emotional or spiritual. With all the good humor and faith of the malades, it's easy for me to forget the deep emotions that lay just underneath the surface, but conversations can quickly turn serious over breakfast, lunch or dinner, or while you're waiting in line for a bath. Tears come quickly at Lourdes and flow as fast as the River Gave.

Spiritual healings come frequently at Lourdes, but people always ask me about any physical ones? So: any miracles? Yes, though maybe not as dramatic as the 66 authenticated ones. For example: One man in our group had suffered from the injuries that occurred during the first Gulf War, and had come to Lourdes for healing. His eyesight, never good, had deteriorated since being injured. As he told me while in line for the baths, as soon as he landed in Lourdes it somehow got even worse. Someone suggested he take off his eyeglasses to let his eyes rest. A few minutes later, he told me, he could see perfectly well. "Look," he said, "I can read your nametag from here." And he did. "I haven't been able to see that well for 25 years!"
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Long the dominant place of prayer in the land termed the church's "eldest daughter," Lourdes has some newfound company.

At the weekend, the apparitions of Our Lady of Laus -- whose Alpine shrine was founded after a young shepherdess reported visions stretching between 1664 and 1718 (and at the rate of about one per week, to boot) -- were formally recognized as being of "supernatural origin":
About 6,000 Catholics, including more than 20 bishops and cardinals, attended a solemn Mass at the sanctuary of Benôite Rencurel – who was 16 when she first reported seeing the Virgin Mary in 1664.

The shepherdess was described by one observer as the French champion of apparitions, because she saw the Virgin Mary around 2,500 times over 54 years – averaging once a week.

Hordes of pilgrims already go to the site in the hope of salvation or a cure. Most recently, a Belgian woman insisted that she had been miraculously cured of a slipped disc after visiting the shrine.

Church authorities in the southeastern town of Gap had long struggled to convince the Vatican to beatify the shepherdess – a request it refused as recently as 2003....

The bishop denied that the official recognition was a marketing ploy on behalf of the Catholic Church.

He said: "You're not obliged to believe in apparitions, even official recognised ones. But if they are a help in your faith and daily life, why reject them?"
PHOTO: AFP/Getty(2)