Come With Me To Lourdes!

We do indeed need to show joy as Catholics.   My motto — “Be happily and uncomplicatedly Catholic.”

Michael J. Sheehan

Archbishop of Santa Fe


Come with me to Lourdes! 

Last month when I visited Lourdes for the twelfth (and maybe last) time, I mentally took you with me. Throughout each day, I noticed special things to tell you. And here are my notes:

Tuesday, July 13

          At dawn I woke hearing a distant crowing of a rooster and the cooing of morning doves.  I hurriedly dressed to go to the dawn Mass at the Grotto, and out on the street I regretted not having brought my umbrella when I saw many other pilgrims scurrying along with theirs. However, the amazing weather of Lourdes was kind.  For the next hour, there was such a mild misting of rain that it was refreshing without getting me wet.


The Mass at the Grotto was conducted in a language that sounded in part like Spanish.  The group celebrating the Mass was from Africa, with many black-skinned women in attractive bright colored gowns. At the beginning of the Mass, they sang a delightful song with hand-clapping.

          Most of the other pilgrims were of a good vintage, some with umbrellas overhead.  The three well-dressed women ahead of me seemed more concerned about sitting on a damp seat than the Mass. One used a dozen Kleenexes to keep wiping off the seat.

           At 9:00 o’clock that evening I went back to the Sanctuary to join the 20,000 to 25,000 other pilgrims in the candle-light procession. With effective loud speakers, this is done very well with the hour-long process devoted to the rosary and singing.  Demonstrating the universality of the Church, the prayers are rotated in a dozen languages, spaced by singing the “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria”, when we all raise our candles overhead. After the service is over, the streets in town are again filled with busy shops and eating and drinking places filled to the gill.

Wednesday, June 14.

The dawn Mass at the Grotto was reserved for a Slavic group.  The guard, an old codger in his kilt and white stockings laced with black cord, insisted that he seat me on the front row of iron seats. I was next to a delightful group of young musicians who were to perform for the Mass. The guitarist was a dark little fellow with much hair everywhere—his black hair was pulled back and tied in a bundle behind his neck, he had a five day beard growth, and hairy arms and legs. There were five young women singers who, observing my wobbly state, treated my as if I were their grandfather—giving me a hand when I knelt, etc.

           From six in the morning until midnight, the streets are a constant parade of interesting pilgrims hurrying back and both to the Sanctuary. You see brown-robed Franciscans, Dominicans in white robes and occasionally a Trappist in his black and white robe. Staying at the adjacent hotel are fifty nurses from Valencia, Spain, in their attractive white-over-blue uniforms. I felt that I was the only American in Lourdes because I never over-heard English spoken by other pilgrims.


An inspiring sight is the abundance of little three-wheel carts used to transport the sick and infirmed. Each has a blue hood to protect from cold or wet weather.  The young volunteers pulling the carts usually appear to be in a joyful holiday mood.

          That night at 10:30 I enjoyed watching from my balcony the splendid fireworks from the citadel on top of a cliff in the center of the city.  It was their annual celebration of Bastille Day. Upon reflection, we wondered why the French would want to celebrate the beginning of the Jacobin era, which was one of the blackest periods in their history.  It would be like us Americans celebrating the arrival of the first slave ship or the Germans making a national holiday for Hitler’s birthday.

          Fellow pilgrims at Lourdes come in all ages and sizes, with a predominance of women. Although you seldom see signs of obesity as you do in the States, everyone appears to be well-fed. In the early morning it is a common sight to see two stocky women trudging up from the Sanctuary, each loaded with bags of Lourdes water to take back to their home villages.  Always present is an old Gypsy woman sitting on the sidewalk, draped in a shawl, holding a large white rosary in one hand and a beggar’s cup in the other.

          For me, the Grotto is the most valuable of all Marian Shrines.  At locations like Fatima and Guadeloupe you visit a massive church built over the site of one of Mary’s apparitions. Here you see the real thing.  A statue of Mary, as described by Bernadette, has been placed in the cavernous opening in the rock cliff where she appeared several times.  At the base, you see water still gushing out from the spring which Bernadette unearthed with her bare hands. 

          At the time of Mary first visitations, the local priest told Bernadette to ask “the Thing” both to give a sign by causing the rosebush to bloom (it was March) and to tell who she was. The roses didn’t bloom, but Mary identified herself saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception” which had no meaning to this young uneducated girl.  During my visits to the Grotto, a white rose bush below the statue was in full bloom.

          Most other apparitions of Mary become fuzzy in veracity when the seers get older and suddenly recall other versions of the event. Not so with Bernadette.  Not so.

Thursday, July 15

The early Mass at the Grotto was special because it was conducted by an English priest, and although I was on a bench at the far end of the area, I enjoyed recognizing the prayers. This was the Feast of Our Lady of St. Carmel, commemorating this day in 1251 when the Blessed Mary gave the brown scapular to Saint Simon Stock. The weather was delightfully fresh with the warmth of the morning sun.

At 11:00 I went to Mass at the Basilica which is on the first level of the large structure in the center of the Sanctuary.  It is a delightful large area with behind the altar a large mosaic of Mary with her arms outstretched. I always have liked this because it shows her as a young woman as described by Bernadette. Surrounding the figure is the saying, “Through Mary to Jesus.”

Lourdes in general

Unlike in the Holy Land, Lourdes has separated the profane and sacred. In Jerusalem my visit to the Way of the Cross was as disappointing as a missed flight. As we nudged our way, shoulder-to-shoulder, through the crowd, I couldn’t hear the person next to me saying the Rosary because of the shouting of street peddlers and the blaring through loud speakers of pop music.


En route to the Sanctuary at Lourdes, you can turn a blind eye to the hundreds of religious goods stores and shops selling anything that might entice a pilgrim to buy. Then inside the grounds of the Grotto, everything is respectfully quiet and reserved. There, in our Catholic Mecca, you can expect to experience every emotion known to man.

          As soon as I step inside the Sanctuary, I sense a lump in my throat.  All of us pilgrims have a singleness of purpose, which gives a bond of appreciation and love. There you see a composite of humanity—the badly infirmed, cheerful care-gives, kids in strollers, the lame, athletes, and men and women of all ages, sizes and colors.  Without expressing it in words, we are loving and loved relatives—we are Joyful Catholics.

Recommended readings

“BYO faith” by Johanna Hatch in USCatholic, September 

BYU faith- “When bishops speak about health-care policy, Catholics don’t have to agree”, written by Richard R. Gaillardetz, Professor of Catholic Studies, University of Toledo. Commonweal August 13

The pro-life promise of a new stem cell technology” by W. Malcolm Brynes, professor at Howard University of Medicine in Washington, DC. America, August 16-23


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