In 1858, a beautiful woman appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in a little cave near the river Gave, where the people of Lourdes were accustomed to deposit their trash. The cave was Masabielle, known now as the Grotto, and the beautiful woman is now revered as Our Lady of Lourdes. In that apparition, Our Lady identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, just four years after the reality of the Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma.
Seventeen years ago, I took my first trip to Lourdes with my family. I remember very little from the trip except that the water was delicious, and we ate at a McDonald’s one day. I think the Happy Meal contained Goof Troop toys. God bless America.
A number of years later, I returned and had a more memorable experience. During a semester abroad in Austria, a number of students (me included) teamed up with a pilgrimage led by the North American Lourdes Volunteers, during which we served in various capacities in the town and sanctuary. The tasks assigned ran the gamut of pilgrimage hospitality. Given the peculiar love that Our Lady of Lourdes shows to the sick, the site continues to attract thousands upon thousands of disabled and sick persons each year. As volunteers we were called upon to help them detrain with wheelchairs and litters. We attended to residents of the Accueil (hospitality centers). We also helped facilitate the Eucharistic processions and torchlight processions at night, the latter task consisting of telling Europeans (Italians mainly) to stay in an orderly line—an unforgiving and ultimately futile task, to be sure. Finally, we also assisted in the baths themselves.
The baths of Lourdes have been a font of healing water for over a hundred and fifty years. On February 25th, the Blessed Mother asked Bernadette to “drink of the spring.” When Bernadette looked down she found only a little puddle of muddy water, amidst a garbage dump mind you. To get sufficient water to drink Bernadette clawed at the ground forming a deeper well, and after her fourth attempt, finally reached enough water to carry out the Blessed Mother’s request. Many in the crowd who had assembled (this was two weeks after the apparitions began) saw this as the tipping point—she had gone mad after all.
Just a few days later though, on March 1st, occurred the first of myriad documented miracles: Catherine Latapie went to the grotto and plunged her dislocated arm into the spring uncovered by Bernadette. Her arm and her hand regained their movement.
In the years that followed, the sanctuary made access to the spring more and more universal. In the present configuration the water is run from the spring to spigots that fill a modern bathhouse to the west of the Grotto where hundreds of pilgrims can bath in the waters each day.
During my time helping in the baths, I was perhaps most impressed by the great faith with which people approached the frigid pool. Whether coming for the healing of a physical malady, an undisclosed petition, or even in proxy for a loved one who could not make the trip, all came with great devotion and expectation. As we directed palsied limbs and delicate bodies, we had the sense of participating in a vast mystery.
In this feast, as we celebrate God’s particular love for the Blessed Mother, we have the same sense of participation in a vast mystery. God, who orders all things sweetly, disposes his followers to seek him in faith and to carry out the mission he has set before us. By the prayers of our Immaculate Mother, may we have the strength to approach the mystery of Christ’s Incarnate Love, with an expectant faith—ready to act at the promise of His coming.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., God’s Own People