Bernadette's shrine: The lure of Lourdes
THE LITTLE TOWN of Lourdes, at the foot of the Pyrenees, is known all over the world. To many millions the name means a great deal; but there are others to whom it means little or nothing: little in the sense that the history of Lourdes and the alleged miraculous happenings there are received with a smile of skepticism or a frown of pity for those who so easily believe.
"Yet for Catholics generally, and for others, particularly those who have visited the sacred shrine, the name Lourdes stirs the heart and awakens a grateful response. For Lourdes is the place where the peasant girl, now Saint Bernadette, was privileged to see and converse with Mary the Mother of Our Lord."
Cardinal Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminister, added, "Only after the most thorough investigation of the child's story was it accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities. As all Catholics know, the church does not easily cry `miracle'."
Among the faithful visiting Lourdes this weekend will be American military personnel from throughout Europe taking part in the International Military Pilgrimage of 1964.
A visit to the famous city is likely to prove a dramatic and emotional experience regardless of the religious affiliations involved. Certainly the pageantry is among the most impressive in the world.
The story of Lourdes belongs to Bernadette, who was born there Jan. 7, 1844. She was the eldest of nine children, and her father was a miller working desperately to provide for his family. For many years, they knew little but poverty.
Bernadette was very backward as a student and suffered from asthma, but her parish priest found her "devout and unassuming."
On Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette was walking along the Gave River gathering firewood with her sister and a friend. The others crossed a mill stream and left Bernadette behind.
Suddenly from the grotto of Massabielle just a few feet from the river came the sound of rising wind. Bernadette noticed the bushes were trembling, and reported she saw, "a girl in white, no taller than I, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head."
The figure seemed to invite Bernadette to pray. She knelt and said five decades of the rosary while the figure, too, passed her beads through her fingers. Then she smiled and withdrew. When Bernadette's companions returned and found her still on her knees, they laughed. At home, her mother told Bernadette not to go to the grotto again.
But three days later she persuaded her parents to let her visit the grotto again. With some friends, she knelt and started the rosary. "The Lady" appeared again, but said nothing. No one but Bernadette saw the vision, and her story was ridiculed again.
It was during her third visit, another three days later, that "the Lady spoke for the first time." Bernadette said she asked, in the Lourdes dialect, for her to visit the grotto each day for two weeks. Bernadette said the figure added, "I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next."
BY this time, public interest was aroused. On Sunday, Feb. 21, she was followed, by a crowd. Afterwards, she was closely questioned by the police and ordered to stay away from the grotto.
She continued to go each day, and on the following Thursday, she was told "Go, drink at the spring and wash in it." She scratched the ground and gradually found enough water to drink. There had been no spring before, but when the day was over the little trickle had become a stream. Since then it has poured thousands of gallons each day, and the water has been carried throughout the world by the pilgrims.
On the day of the 13th apparition, Bernadette was told to ask the clergy to build a chapel and to have processions there. The parish priest had been critical of the events at the grotto from the first, and he received her message coldly.
The "Lady" appeared twice more, once on April 7 and for the 18th and final time on July 16, according to Bernadette.
From then on, Bernadette was to realize the truth of the words. "You will not find happiness on this earth." She was submitted to ceaseless questioning and inquisitive visitors constantly invaded her home. Lourdes was in an uproar. The civil authorities barricaded the grotto and threatened to declare Bernadette a hysteric.
In 1864, she offered herself as a postulant to the Sisters of Nevers. On May 19, 1866, she was present for the opening of the crypt of the church, and on July 3 she visited the grotto for the last time. The final 13 years of her life were spent as a Sister of Nevers in central France. She died April 16, 1879 and was canonized in 1933 by Pope Pius XI.
LOURDES today is a mecca for Catholics and other visitors from throughout the world, but above all it is a place of hope for the sick and the crippled. The collection of cast-off crutches at the side of the grotto indicate that for some the pilgrimage brought new life, but more important is the help the afflicted receive in living with their burden.
The sick who come to Lourdes with registered pilgrimages are in the care of doctors, nurses and attendants who offer their services free, frequently using their holidays to help the invalids. There are two hospitals available, and most of the invalids remain five days. They are transported to the baths, the grotto and to the church square by "brancardiers," a volunteer organization with branches all over the Catholic areas of the world. Stretchers are provided by gifts from. the pilgrims.
The two big events each day are the blessing of the sick in the church square during the afternoon and the tremendous candlelight procession held each evening with thousands of pilgrims taking part. The singing of "Ave Maria" during the procession unites the people from many lands, a living testimonial to the memory of a simple peasant girl.