LYINIC in the green foothills of the Pyrenees, Lourda is surrounded by fertile farms and traditicaal stone-built villages. In the last twenty years tie number of pilgrims has almost doubled: there ate now more than 41 million each year and to acammodate them Lourdes has more hotels than arywhere in France outside Paris.
At tie height of summer its narrow streets are throngs:I with pedestrians, wheel-chairs, cars and coaches making their way to or from the Basilica and Gotto. But the older hotels up precipitous streets.often without lifts, present difficulties for the eldrly and handicapped, even if they can afford he prices. And the well-appointed modern hotels Song the banks of the river Gave are quite expensi e.
Since1858, the year of St Bernadette's visions, many siitors to Lourdes have found healing, peace of spin i and renewed strength. Bernadette, then aged I, was the illiterate daughter of an unempl,yed miller, his family housed by public charity n a small disused jail.
The sessages she related after the visions were directed particularly to the poor and needy. But nowadas, when they flock there in ever-increasing number, where can they stay?
Two ears ago, when Pope John Paul II visited Lourdes he said, "I greet the poor for whom the Marian :By of Lourdes is particularly welcoming, as the Lte Mgr Rodhain, the founder of Secours Catholiue and the Cite St Pierre, had understood so well'
The lite St Pierre is situated on the hillside
overlooking the town and well away from all the souvenir shops and cafes. Within a mile of the Sanctuary and Grotto, Its attractive buildings of local materials harmonise with the surrounding hills.
Sheep graze peacefulls around the simple stone chapel, the exact replica of the barn where St Bernadette sheltered her sheep when she was working as a shepherdess, just 2 miles away in the village of Bartres.
The Cite receives an astonishing 22,000 pilgrims each year, staying for up to five nights with full board provided. Bedrooms are simple hut adequate, two or 4-bedded cubicles in chalet-style buildings, each providing about 100 places.
Seven hundred people can be accommodated at a time and applicants are asked to describe their circumstances so that priority can be given to refugees, the elderly, handicapped, unemployed, students and single-parent families. Many more apply each year than can be accepted.
ln contrast to the hotels, the great majority of those who work at Cite St Pierre are volunteers, mostly young people, who offer their services free for a period of three weeks. Drawn from 35 different countries they cook and clean, supervise the chalets, work in the restaurant and cope with the washing-up.
Three times a day 700 meals are served in the central dining room with tremendous efficiency and friendliness; a smile and a "Bon appeti11" greets each guest. Meal-times are a good opportunity to meet people, young and old, from
any or the 74 different countries so far represented among the visitors to the Cite.
There is no set charge for board and lodging hut each person is asked to give at least the cost of the food they would have eaten anyway, and beyond that according to their means, perhaps up to the cost of a good hostel or a small guest house. Donations are 'posted' in anonymous envelopes into a central collecting-box.
Each year over 120,000 people staying at hotels in Lourdes take one of the little buses which leave frequently from the Sanctuary gates to visit the Cite. On arrival they can join a guided tour in their own language by one of the volunteer-helpers. Away from the hurly-burly of the town they experience the peace of Lourdes in this happy mountain retreat and many post an offering in the 'donation box' before returning to their hotels.
Any surplus goes into the funding of 'Secours Catholique', the organisation which runs the Cite St Pierre. This is a major international relief charity. the 'Cafod' of France, which was also founded by the indefatigable Mgr Rodhaiin in 1946 to serve the needs of the homeless and destitute, first in Europe immediately after the second World War and then expanding to become a world-wide organisation for the relief of refugees, famine and other disasters.
We took a group of 50 Vietnamese Boat People there this summer. It is not generally realised that over 2,000 of the Vietnamese refugees in the UK are Catholics, representing about 10% of the population of Vietnam. Theirs was a pilgrimage of
thanksgiving For their safe arrival in this country and to pray for all those left behind, many of them persecuted for their faith, including 400 priests in prison.
Our group included the very young and the very old, several sick people and some recentlybereaved, but all eagerly awaiting the opportunity to pray and give thanks at the shrine at Lourdes. The group was led by a young priest and a deacon ordained in July, both of whom had started their studies in Saigon before being forced to flee by boat. They later completed their training in Rome.
Each evening they all took part in the candle-lit procession around the Basilica with the banner they had made for the occasion, and their priest took his place on the platform to lead some of the prayers in Vietnamese over the loud-speakers, to the great joy of his people.
Our group came mostly from the Lozells area of Handsworth, where the UK Vietnamese Chaplaincy is situated. Al the end of our stay they were radiant with the happiness which the peace and beauty and friendliness of the Cite St Pierre had added to their visit to Lourdes and the surrounding countryside.
For us it was a small miracle that they had been able to benefit from this brief holiday-pilgrimage, because within two weeks of our return came the horrors of the rioting and arson and destruction in Handsworth.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the chapel of St Bernadette at Lourdes