With the much publicized trip of Pope Francis to Fatima recently to honour two children who claimed to have seen the “Blessed Virgin Mary”, it has reminded me of my own trip to Lourdes many moons ago. Not a pilgrimage for me, just another school kid helping out by wheeling some very large, very antiquated wheelchairs with people of all disabilities resident in them. Lourdes is the site of a “Marian” apparition in 1858 by another child, Bernadette Soubirous. Between February and July 1858, Bernadette claimed to have seen 18 apparitions of a “White Robed Lady” in a small grotto called Massabiele, near the town of Lourdes. 3 children, Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco in Portugal, and Bernadette in France, all claimed to have had religious apparitions. Really?
I have always been skeptic. Why would you have to travel to France to be healed? Are “miracles” exclusive to booking your travel plans wisely? I think not. If God wants me healed he’ll heal me, and it won’t be dependent on how many travel stamps I have in my passport.
From 1864 to 1872 the site at Lourdes was mostly a regional pilgrimage destination attracting approximately 30,000 persons per year. Initially the shrine was not known for its curative power but after 1873, when incidents of healing at the spring began to be reported, the shrine rapidly developed a national and then international reputation for having miraculous powers. Today the grotto at Massabiele is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Lourdes itself where souvenir shops have price battles over their plastic Virgin Mary bottles (Used to fill with water from the baths) and Virgin Mary statues with flashing halos.
We arrived late afternoon after a short bus ride from Tarbes airport, and on arriving at Lourdes I could have been forgiven to think I had arrived on the Costa del Sol, with its hotels, guest houses, souvenir shops and bars, most blasting out Jimmy Osmonds “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” which was number 1 at the time. I wanted to slap Jimmy Osmond into the middle of next Wednesday.
We unpacked and made our way to Massabiele. To say it is a world away is an understatement. Just a huge fenced off area (and I mean huge) and every sound vanished. The Long Haired Lover From Liverpool had been silenced. Miracle 1. We took a good 10 minute walk past official Church buildings used as offices, statues of Mary herself, beautifully tended gardens and Churches and we finally arrived at the grotto. The crowds had gone, it was late at night and even a very bad Catholic girl like me gasped. The grotto was lit by what seemed like thousands of candles, and there she was, tucked toward the back and to the right up high. Mary herself. There were still a few people kneeling, standing and sitting. All praying or contemplating. Us very young, very loud Welsh girls were immediately dumb struck. I’d never experienced anything like it before. Dumb struck by a place. We sat. The experience of sitting quietly at the grotto was amazing. The sound of the Gave de Pau behind you, the statue of Our Lady in the niche, and the opportunity to just contemplate…a very spiritual setting. I’d go there again just to experience that feeling of peace and “something”.
I had an overwhelming experience that you can’t really describe because it’s such a peaceful place and it’s a place where the sick are really put first and it strikes you that if hospitals were like that all the time, then the world would generally be a better place. So, do people get healed? Well there have actually been well documented cases that they have. Whether that would have happened anyway I have no idea, but that’s for another blog. For some, the fields of science and religion do not sit easily side-by-side. I feel there is a role for both. Even if there is no healing, surely that sense of peace and tranquility I felt can only add to the general well-being of those with hope in their heart?
Are these places of wealth, where they were once places of poverty, a creation of the Church? I don’t know. We could ponder that one until the end of time. Did Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco in Portugal, and Bernadette in France see a “White Robed Lady” now generally accepted by many Roman Catholics as the Virgin Mary? Well whether they say they saw her or the ghost of my great Aunty Nelly on a street corner, who the hell am I to say “No you didn’t” ?