Tuesday is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Christopher Howse marks the day by looking at the different faces of Lourdes.
THE POPE never did get to Lourdes.
He had announced his intention of making a pilgrimage to the shrine during his visit to France last year. On that occasion his first act on reaching Paris was to kneel before the statue of Our Lady in Notre Dame Cathedral. At the end of the trip he went to Lisieux. where he had an opportunity to say something about dedication in the religious life (a foretaste of the recent straight dealing with the Jesuits). But he was saving Lourdes for the Eucharistic Congress set for July 1981.
The assassination attempt in May (on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima) knocked that on the head, but only just. Shortly before the Eucharistic Congress, Bishop Holland of Salford was suggesting that the Pope might be planning to make a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Lourdes for his return to health. It was a close thing, but Cvtomegalovirus made sure that not even as an invalid could Pope John Paul visit the shrine for invalids.
All of which was considerably vexing to the postcard manufacturers who had produced thousands of faked photomontages of the Pope standing. arms outstretched before the crowds at the Grotto. During the largest Congress Mass. hopeful gypsies infiltrated the boundaries of the domaine to hawk cut price flags bearing the Papal profile, which a few pilgrims were persuaded to wave rather aimlessly in the crowded meadow opposite the statue of the Immaculate Conception.
"Blessed be the name of the immaculate CONCEPTION." wrote Christopher Smart in the century before anyone had heard of Lourdes. A touching sentiment from an unevenly anti-Catholic thinker (if a madman). Unfortunately Smart thought 'Immaculate Conception' meant the same as the Virgin Birth. Hopkins, who shared some of Smart's poetic oddness, and whose life spanned the first enthusiasms of Lourdes, had a better idea and praised Duns Scotus in verse for championing the doctrine while it was still undefined.
One of the charms of the appearance of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes was the extreme unintellectualness of it all. The very fact that she declared who she was in the despised Provencal dialect touches a cord of rustic humility. (Though how Bernadette would have been expected to understand any other language is another question),
One rather neglected thing that Our Lady told Bernadette was to eat the grass there. Drink the water and eat the grass. I have seen plenty of pilgrims filling *Jerry cans full of water to drink. but really no one eating the grass.
A clue to the unusual injunctions may come from the circumstances under which Bernadette first performed them. When she discovered the spring, it was a muddy outpouring. and she said that she had to spit out several mouthfuls before she could bring herself to drink from it.
So it seems the first drinking, like the eating of grass, was an act of penance and humility. I seem to recollect there is some reference to humility in the Magnificat — the humility of someone who was in a position to call herself the Immaculate Conception.
The most humiliating thing about Lourdes these days for anyone with taste and sensibility must be the Soho-display of tawdry religious nick-hacks in the streets leading to the Grotto. For religious aesthetes it is as great a scandal against the Church as the goings-on of the Borgias — at least they were patrons of the arts. But aesthetes are notoriously poor judges.
The strange thing is that the same people who voluntarily humiliate themselves by waiting upon the sick, carry them about and help them to bathe are the same who patronise the shops. There are also other pilgrims who get drunk and. as with any random group away from home. there is a surprising amount or sexual immorality. It is rather like the Canterbury Tales.
Between the Scylla of' bad taste and the Charybdis of wickedness lies a wide field of innocent pleasures in Lourdes which have absolutely nothing to do with the shrine. On Sunday. Mr Martin Bonnell's St Martin's Tours sets off for a week in Lourdes for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But (and this is not just meant to be an advertisement) he uses the same coach, appointed with the facilities of an hotel. to take people skiing in the Pyrenees above Lourdes. And why not? in winter the pilgrim town of Lourdes goes into hibernation.
Mr Bonnell, a great bear of a man, does not. When I travelled with him in the summer I was astonished by the patience, professionalism and good humour of his coach drivers. They are not the only ones. They seem like survivors from the days of Sam Weller's father. If you are the slightest bit interested in humanity as well as holy water, travelling by coach to Lourdes is unbeatable.
The Pope, I suppose, will arrive by helicopter. He is bound to go soon. He is a pilgrim by nature his first trip was to Our Lady of Guadalupe. and he already has a visit to Jerusalem in mind. And he still has to make that thanksgiving over which Bishop Holland jumped the gun.