The true joy of Lourdes

By  Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, Catholic Register Special
  • October 3, 2008
{mosimage}The Miracle of Lourdes: A Message of Healing and Hope by John Lochran (St. Anthony Messenger Press, softcover, 134 pages, $12.95).

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the miracle of Lourdes, where Our Lady appeared to French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, Fr. John Lochran retells the familiar story with deep insight and new appreciation.

If anyone is able to do so, it is Lochran, who served as chaplain to the English-speaking pilgrims to Lourdes between 1985 and 1995, and is now a parish priest in Wales. In this book, Lochran draws heavily on his personal experiences working at the world famous shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and links the perennial message of Lourdes to the daily life of Christians throughout the world. 

This slim volume of 19 chapters is divided into three parts: Lourdes: The Grotto was my Heaven; Bernadette: A broom in the hands of the Virgin Mary; and Mary: Pilgrim of Pilgrims.

In his introduction, Lochran writes: “Lourdes was once described to me as the ‛Disneyland of the Catholic Church,’ as ‛God’s Magic Kingdom.’ I had to reply that it is the complete opposite. Disneyland is a commercial enterprise where joy and pleasure is manufactured and paid for. Lourdes is about generosity of spirit where true joy is found in giving time and loving service freely to the sick and those in need. It has nothing to do with magic or fairy tales and legends. It is founded on reality, a remarkable reality, historical reality, above all a sacred reality.”

At the heart of Lourdes stands an encounter of love between a child and a mother, between Bernadette Soubirous and Mary, Mother of God.  That meeting forever changed the face of a small French village and reawakened the spiritual yearnings of people, making Lourdes a worldwide centre of pilgrimage.

In 1858, with a population of little more than 3,000, Lourdes was an obscure village amid the Pyrenees in southwestern France. Among its poorest citizens were members of the Soubirous family. With his wife, Louise, and their four children, Francois Soubirous, a miller by trade, had fallen upon hard times. In 1857 they were forced to live in the Cachot, an abandoned jail.

On Feb. 11, 1858, life changed dramatically and decisively for Bernadette. Her simple search for firewood initiated an amazing encounter with heaven. With her sister Toinette and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, at a rocky recess in Massabielle, Bernadette had a vision that left an indelible imprint on her heart and began the story that is Lourdes.

In this grotto she saw a “Lady dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot, the colour of her rosary.” Who the “Lady” was became the subject of much debate. There were 18 apparitions in all.

As news reached the townspeople and neighbouring districts, people flocked to the grotto. With the discovery of a spring of water, and the news of healings taking place, the crowds grew.

For Bernadette it was a time of private ecstasy and public hell. She was mocked and ridiculed by some. A 14-year-old illiterate child, she was hounded by police and local authorities, interrogated and even threatened with prison. In the face of this adversity, she remained steadfast. Even the local priest, the Abbé Peyramale, who was skeptical at first, eventually believed her.

He became convinced when, at the ninth apparition on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the “Lady” said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Peyramale knew that a poor, uneducated child with no formal religious training or doctrinal knowledge could never have invented such a title — a dogma only proclaimed by the church in 1854.

After four years of stringent church investigation, the clear evidence of Bernadette’s credibility and many cases of inexplicable healing, the local bishop, in a pastoral letter, declared, “Truly, the Blessed Virgin Mary did appear to Bernadette.”

Bernadette remained in Lourdes until 1866 when she joined the Sisters of Charity and Christian Learning at Nevers in northern France. She remained there until her death in 1879.

At Lourdes, many physical cures have found the approval of the church. Lochran asserts, however, that the message of Lourdes speaks above all of the healing of the heart, of a deeper spiritual healing that allows God’s love to touch the whole person, bringing the abundance of life that Jesus wants for us.

I recommend this book to all those who have visited Lourdes. It will undoubtedly bring back powerful memories and situate your pilgrimage experience into a much greater picture. And for those who have never visited this piece of holy ground, treat yourself to a virtual pilgrimage and retreat experience through Lochran’s journey.

(Rosica, is C.E.O. of the Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network.)

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