Our Lady of Lourdes
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of the great feasts of the pre-conciliar Church and an inspiration to millions of Catholics for two centuries. If the Pieta, the “sorrowful mother”, was the symbol of Mary in medieval European piety, it is the Virgin Mother, immaculate and compassionate, who speaks to our times.
At Lourdes, an obscure township in southern France, the Blessed Virgin Mary was seen and heard by a young peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous in the mid-19th century. Upon being commanded by “the lady” (as she would call the apparition), Bernadette dug into the earth and a miraculous spring of water gushed out, the source of healing to countless believers, and a standing refutation to numerous skeptics.
Popular Catholic devotion has taken Lourdes to itself – from artificial grottos in almost every church compound, to candlelight processions and pilgrimages.
What is it that people find on pilgrimage but not in a church? Perhaps it’s a companion-ship on a journey with fellow travelers whom one is not likely to meet again, an interaction which provokes a sharing of confidences never revealed before.
And what do people pray for? Judging from the scribbled pieces of paper left behind in petition boxes, they pray for the “same old things” – peace of mind, freedom from illness, peace in the home from difficult children and wayward spouses, success in exams, finding jobs and a suitable partner in life, avoiding financial disaster. The needs of the human heart are much the same, down the centuries and across cultures.
But pilgrimages are also times of “threshold experiences” – that is, we embrace new ways of perception, make new decisions, and experience renewal as we cross from one spiritual threshold into another. Pilgrimages can change our lives and renew them. Men and women who “cross the threshold” of ordinary living discover God anew. Well did the Council redefine the Church as a ‘pilgrim people’, always in need of turning anew to the Gospel.
And whether at Lourdes or Fatima or Velankanni or elsewhere, Mary is venerated as ‘powerful mother’, the mother who carries her son in her arms, and reaches out to bless all her supplicants. This is a symbol found in almost every religious tradition. It is not just physical cures for which Lourdes is famous; even more, though less visible, is the healing of the soul and the gift of faith, which marks this shrine as a place blessed by God for the salvation of his people.
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