Lourdes is Europe's pre-eminent place of pilgrimage, says Eric Hester: among other things, Lourdes proves that Mary leads us to her son
Lourdes is for everyone. I have prayed to Our Blessed Lady at Walsingham, which I love for its Englishness, and I have prayed to Our Blessed Lady at Loreto. which I love for its ltalianness. But I love Lourdes. not for its Frenchness, but for its universality. Lourdes belongs to all of us. It is the pre-eminent place of pilgrimage in Europe, rivalled in the world only by that other great Marian shrine at Guadalupe, where I have not yet prayed.
Over 5 million pilgrims per year go :o Lourdes. Forget the souvenir shops and the tinsel — the real Lourdes exists in the hearts of people. even :hose who have never been to Lourdes. Vow you can even fly from Manchester, and presumably elsewhere, for a 3ne-day pilgrimage on the feast of The Immaculate Conception.
We go to Lourdes to be closer to our mother. It is only natural that we think af the sick et Lourdes and that the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 11 February • not always kept as a proper feast In England now to our shame — is a lay of prayer for the sick. Which mother does not give the greatest care o her sick children? At Lourdes, it is :he sick who are the elite, the aristo:rats — everyone else is their servant. Fatima, too, is a great pilgrims' centre, ,ut though its message is vital to our modernist world. the actual place has lot won people's hearts as has Loures. is the sick that make the difference.
aradoxically — though it is not a paradox to those wise in the — Our Lady of heart rt Lourdes attracts more young, tough men than any other devotion. At the boys' gram mar school where I had the mivilege to be head master, the annual ourdes pilgrimage resembled the -ugby club's goings on. Tough lads, in ee shirts, set about raising money and organising the pilgrimage and spendng their own money so that they could lave a week serving others. Old boys, mingled with present pupils, because _ourdes appeals to young and old. At he parish where I attend Mass each iunday, the good parish priest allowed it the end of Mass a splendid young man to make an appeal for the handicapped pilgrimage to Lourdes. He is a young medical student and is going to Lourdes as a helper. He is paying his own expenses , of course, and his appeal was for sponsorship for a handicapped person. He stood at the church door and in one morning collected over £600 from a parish where the people are not all rich in material terms. And they say that our young people aren't up to scratch!
The history of Lourdes is well known and so I will not spend much time on the details. The whole world knows how, in 1858, Our Blessed Lady appeared to a simple fourteenyear-old French girl from a desperately poor family in one of the world's obscure spots, firstly on 11 February and then on seventeen more occasions finishing on 16 July. Less than four years earlier. Pope Pius IX — beatified in 1999 by our own Holy Father had declared on 8th December 1854. as an article of faith, the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady. She showed her approval of this great church doctrine by appearing to Bernadette. Her parish priest and others who had not believed Bernadette's "storiesof "a Ladytold Bernadette to ask the Lady her name. Everyone was bowled over when Bernadette came back and said that the Lady had said "I am the Immaculate Conception". "That title so wondrous" does indeed "fill all our desire" but it is not an easy idea and not one that a girl would have made up. The Immaculate Conception, often confused by outsiders with the virgin birth. means that from the very moment when her life started — which we know is the moment of conception, hence the title — Our Blessed Lady was preserved from any taint of original sin. In the phrase that Venerable Henry Newman loved. she is "the Second Eve".
The rest, in the words of the cliché, is history: how Bernadette, at Our Lady's orders discovered a spring; how her "stories" were eventually accepted by the church authorities. always rightly slow to believe in the truth of apparitions. The basilica and the other buildings were erected, the pilgrims arrived in their millions and Jennifer Jones starred in the very American film Song of
Ihave mentioned the international character of Lourdes. Nowhere is this better symbolised than in the torchlit procession when pilgrims from every country in the world hold their candles and sing the same hymn. Each sings the verse in his or her own language but everyone comes together to sing "Ave, ave. ave. Maria" the words of the angel Gabriel that proclaimed our salvation. Perhaps as Cardinal Ratzinger asks the Church to "revise the revision" of the Liturgy. the wisdom of adding a few words of well-loved Latin will dawn on those responsible. Again, the absurd claim is sometimes made that to honour Our Blessed Lady is displeasing to Our Lord since it distracts from Him. Even on the human level, this is crazy logic of the heart. Which son is displeased by hearing his mother praised? Are we to assume that the Son of God is jealous of His own mother? Lourdes gives the lie to this argument. Where is their greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament than in Lourdes? Where are the Stations of the Cross said by more people or with greater fervour than at those outdoor High Stations, going steeply up the Mount of Espelugues, called Mount Calvary? Among other things, Lourdes proves that Mary leads us inexorably to her blessed son.
Holy Mother Church is in a crisis as the Holy Father has said. Has there ever been such open dissent actually within the Church? We desperately need to have unity behind the Pope instead of everyone being his or her own pope.
believe this unity will come if we turn to Our Blessed Lady. In any family. it is the mother who sorts out the troubles and calms the wild ones. Let us hope that our leaders in Britain will lead us in a return to devotion to Our Blessed Lady and no better title than Our Lady of Lourdes. A very Catholic prayer, paradoxical to outsiders would be, "Our Lady of Lourdes may England return to the faith and again be your dowry."
As I end, I can hear some reader say. "But he has not mentioned the miracles!" The miracles of Lourdes. the medical ones are genuine and better attested than almost anything else in medical history. They have their place But the real miracle of Lourdes lies in what goes on in our souls when we pray to Our Lady of Lourdes. Many pray to Our Lady of Lourdes who have never been to Lourdes and will never go there. To pray for all sickness to be cured is to pray for immortality. We do not do that.
We pray for a real change, in our bodies perhaps. but most of all in the soul, in a world where the very word "soul" is avoided. Even earthly mothers rarely let down their children. Our heavenly mother never does: that is the miracle.