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Lourdes, a place of hope and moral miracles


I’ve been meaning to go to Lourdes ever since I saw Jennifer Jones in her Academy Award-winning role as Bernadette in “Song of Bernadette” in 1943. It was a three-hanky movie that sent me off to the library to read Czech novelist Franz Werfel’s book of the same title. (Jennifer wasn’t even a Catholic, and Werfel was Jewish. That is impact. Years later, I would read comic novelist Peter DeVries whose chief character, Joe Sandwich, goes to Lourdes and gets sick -- which clearly maps my deterioration.)

Lourdes could capture the imagination of a lobster. It is in the department of Hautes-Pryenees in southwest France. A city of 17,600 people, its history predates the appearances by many years. But it was Bernadette’s 18 visions that made it the second-most popular Catholic pilgrimage site after the Holy Land. Presently, it is second only to Paris in the number of hotels. At least one of them is a four-star luxury hotel. There are some rich pilgrims, I guess.

It is said to draw over 6 million pilgrims each year. Some walk with hiking boots, berets and long walking sticks. Most come on colorful tour buses as good as any we have over here. The majority of the visitors are moved by devotion alone, but many come seeking a cure for a deformity or ailment. Watching the pilgrims is a pilgrimage all its own. It could soften the heart of a supplemental health insurance claims specialist.

You remember the story. It was 1858. A 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous was gathering firewood in the recesses of a Massabielle cliff near Lourdes. She was the daughter of Francois Soubirous and Louise Casterot, the first of six children. Her father was a miller, but his business did not flourish. The family sank deeper and deeper into poverty until there was barely enough to eat. Bernadette was put to work for a friend tending sheep in the country where the fresh air would ease her asthma.

In 1858, she returned home to make her first Communion and on Feb. 11 went with her sister and a friend to gather firewood. She became separated from her companions and at a natural grotto near the river she saw a beautiful lady not much older than Bernadette herself. It would be the first of 18 appearances during which the lady identified herself as the Immaculate Conception -- a confirmation for many of Pius IX’s 1854 declaration as an article of faith of the somewhat controversial dogma.

On Feb. 24, 1858, Bernadette was instructed to have a chapel built in honor of the Blessed Virgin. (A basilica was erected in 1870 and a lower church, which seats 20,000, was completed in 1958.) Bernadette was also instructed to bathe and to drink from a stream that began to flow the following day. Since then, the baths have been associated with over 5,000 miraculous healings, only 58 of which have been described as “worthy of credence.”

Within days the crowds had grown to over 20,000, but Bernadette was the only one to see the Virgin. In 1865 at the age of 22, she entered the Sisters of Charity at Nevers where she spent her life working as a sacristan and infirmarian. She never returned to Lourdes. She died in 1879 at 35. She was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933.

Although Lourdes has been the subject of encyclicals by Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII, the events surrounding Lourdes are still classed as private revelation. Catholics are not required to believe in the apparitions or the healings. (The same is true of Fátima in Portugal, John Paul II’s favorite shrine.)

The day my wife, Jean, and I visited Lourdes, we took a back road into the city. Our guide didn’t want us to see the awful collection of stores that were peddling religious kitsch. We did, anyway -- one narrow street after another selling souvenirs. There were badly done statues and medals, together with plastic bottles in the shape of the Blessed Mother (just unscrew the head and you can fill it with some of the over 30,000 gallons of water that flow from the spring each day.) The schlock was being sold from stands titled “St. Mathias,” “St. Therese,” “Immaculate Virgin” and so on. The commercial section was a Catholic Coney Island.

There were candles galore, some thick as telephone poles. “Extend your prayer. Buy a candle,” the signs read. At the shrine itself, candles were being removed almost as fast as they were lit. Someone was making big francs on peoples’ faith in candles.

But with the exception of the candles, the shrine itself was remarkably protected from this dreck. The grounds were well kept and quite pretty. The crowds of people were well behaved. Able-bodied people stepped aside for the procession of hundreds of wheelchairs pushed by relatives and well-dressed volunteers.

Europe doesn’t hide its physically and mentally challenged. Some of the children could only be described as grotesque. While I wondered about God’s plan for these children, parents with their heads high and chins fixed in place slowly pushed their sons and daughters toward the grotto and the baths in an act of faith and hope that would move mountains inside the soul of a drug dealer. Watching them attempting to lift their children’s hands to touch the wet stonewall over which only a little water flowed was testimony to the great moral miracle that occurs there. People quickly forget whatever ailment brought them there and begin praying for others. (The cancer that reduced me to a semi-colon last year became little more than a bilious attack.)

There weren’t many Americans there. Maybe my Jean and I were simply off-season. I met a volunteer from New Jersey who goes there every year and directs pedestrian and wheelchair traffic. His faith glowed. Lourdes energized him.

There were a number of individual processions from various countries. Most were led by priests in rather seedy cassocks, much in need of dry-cleaning. Masses were being offered in tents on the grounds, and Latin hymns were sung as the groups processed. In the background, bells sounded the “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” the hymn that has long been the Lourdes anthem. It was like going back 50 years.

There is a sameness to such vision stories. In 1846, the Virgin was said to have appeared to two peasant children at LaSalette in France. In 1932, she appeared to five children in Beauraing, Belgium. A year later, Mariette Beco, an 11-year-old girl, saw her eight times in Banneaux, Belgium. Then there were the three peasant children at Fátima in 1917. (One is still alive, and the other two have recently been beatified.) The most recent sighting was in 1981 at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzogovina. Six young people claimed to have seen her there and received at least 10 messages in a vision described by the local bishop as “collective hallucination.” The visions have been exploited by local Franciscans who were arguing with the bishop over control of the local parish.

Perhaps the only major appearance not involving children was the visit of the Blessed Mother to a Native American widower, Juan Diego, at Guadalupe, outside Mexico City, in 1531. Her legend has grown to the point that she was named Patroness of the Americas in 1945.

I can’t bring myself to believe. But I believe in placebos, both spiritual and medical. The Latin word means “I shall please.” In medicine, it refers to a substance containing no medication and it is prescribed to reinforce a person’s expectation of getting well. It brings back, too, the first word of the first antiphon in the Office of the Dead.Placebos help us to witness the real power within the faithful. It is the power of their faith, however perceived or directed. It is a witness to their love for others. It does not come from the top down. Like the waters of Lourdes, it finds its own level.

Placebos can restore hope. They can be powerful incentives. They can remind us that perhaps God is saving the good wine until last. One can leave a place like Lourdes with the conviction that things will turn out well regardless of how they work themselves out.

Scientists have analyzed the water at Lourdes and reported that it contained no special properties. However, if they examined the people who come to place their hands in the water and to bless themselves with it, they might discover elusive properties of faith, hope and love that could wash the skid marks from our souls.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he has been pre-approved. He’s at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000