A PILGRIMAGE TO LOURDES, FRANCE
It was a bit cold when we arrived in Lourdes early in the morning. Outside the train station, we could see the majestic Pyrenees mountains in the far distance – this was the natural barrier that separated France from Spain. We met quite a lot of elderly people – mostly Americans – who had joined various religious tour groups and many were invalid, judging from the numerous wheelchairs that we saw. Lourdes is, after all, a place of pilgrimage where people from all over the world come for a miracle. To be able to pray in the Grotto and, hopefully, get cured of an illness are the fervent wishes of those who visit this small corner of France.
The streets had dozens of souvenir shops selling just about every imaginable religious item: rosaries, crucifixes, statues of varying sizes, jewelry, books, videos – you name it, they had it. There were even plastic containers (some with the likeness of the Virgin) where you can store water from the miraculous spring inside the Grotto to take home with you.
Lourdes became a major religious pilgrimage destination in Europe all because of one girl: Bernadette Soubirous. Back in February 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette saw an apparition in the cave of Masabielle while gathering firewood with her younger sister and another friend. This apparition, which was clad in white with a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, appeared to her on eighteen occasions. Although many people later accompanied her to the place (they numbered in the thousands at one stage), she was the only one who saw the image. On the sixteenth occasion, the apparition revealed to her that she was the Immaculate Conception who asked that a shrine be built on that spot to become a place of pilgrimage.
Thus the story of Lourdes was born and a message of hope, along with a call to prayer and repentance, became a beacon for millions of people to follow. Bernadette entered the nunnery in 1866 and died in 1879. She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in December 8, 1933, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Her body lies well-preserved inside a bronze and crystal casket in the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers where she served.
The shrines of Lourdes are actually five Basilicas: The Crypt, The Immaculate Conception, The Rosary, St. Pius X and the St. Bernadette Church. The first three are actually built atop each other above the rocky hill where the Grotto is located, while the other two are located nearby. We entered the wide esplanade where the statue of the Crowned Virgin stood surrounded by hundreds of flower bouquets brought by pilgrims. This is the area where people congregate and special Masses are held.
We first visited the Rosary Basilica which is on the lower level. One enters it through a majestic Romanesque-designed doorway with a bas-relief sculpture of Our Lady cradling the Infant Jesus and bestowing a rosary on St. Dominic. Finished in 1887, it can accommodate 2,000 people inside its 52-meter long by 48-meter space. The main attractions inside are the small private chapels representing the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary detailed in beautiful mosaic tile. The images shimmered brilliantly in the soft lighting and one can imagine the painstaking work done in order to achieve such realistic, portrait-like effect.
The Crypt, which was built in 1863, is located on the second level accessed thru a curving walkway rising from the Esplanade or directly via a staircase from the sides of the Rosary Basilica. It is a small church with a narrow corridor whose walls are lined with, well, crypts. Not more than a hundred people could fit in there.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which is the upper basilica since it stands on top of the other two, is built in Gothic style with 19 beautiful stained glass windows depicting biblical references to the Immaculate Conception. Its square-shaped bell tower has an octagonal steeple rising to 70 meters.
Outside the doorway is a wide terrace where you can view the old Roman fortified castle which stood atop an 80-meter high rock summit. Lourdes is a picturesque, postcard-pretty town that, even without the Shrines, could draw in tourists simply for its natural beauty: well-conserved forests, relaxing thermal resorts, and clear mountain lakes. The River Gave runs through the town and it passes right beside the Grotto.
Bernadette walked along its banks which extended right to the very entrance of the cave which is an indentation on the rock face that extends inside for about 8 meters with a width and height of 6 meters. The rock is now blackened from the smoke of the hundreds of candles that continuously burn on the candelabra in front of it. The interior is paved with marble and there is a slab of rock in front that is used as an altar when Mass is celebrated. On the left-hand side is the spring of water which gushes out of the rock. This was the fountain where Bernadette was commanded by the Virgin to drink and wash herself as an act of purification no less. It is now covered with a pane of glass brightly illuminated from inside. Water still gurgles out of it steadily.
Above this cave is another niche. This is where the apparition appeared and it now houses the image of the Virgin made out of white Carrara marble. On its base are inscribed the words in the local dialect: Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou. (I am the Immaculate Conception). We joined the queue that went into the cave and I prayed for the Virgin to grant us a safe journey home. Some people wept silently as they lovingly caressed the cave’s rough-hewn rock walls with their hands or handkerchiefs. It was quite a moving sight.
There were 21 fountains (faucets actually) on the right side of the Grotto that were fed by the water from the spring where people drank or filled their containers. Although many have attested to its curative powers, it is by no means a magical liquid. In the context of the message of Lourdes, this water was an invitation or a symbol, if you will, to purify oneself and renew one’s baptismal promises. We, too, drank from it and its cold and invigorating taste was great! The water is channeled from the spring into a reservoir underneath the Basilica which can hold 450,000 liters. The spring itself has a daily output of 17,000 to 72,000 liters depending on the season.
We went to the “Way of the Cross”, a path that meanders up the hill above the Basilica where fifteen stations of Jesus Christ’s suffering on the way to Calvary are depicted by real-life sculptures. It was an amazing scene made all the more moving, when we heard the church’s bells toll from above the hilly embankment as the sun slowly set below the horizon, far beyond the breathtaking view of the countryside. It took us about an hour to negotiate the almost-two km. long walk which looped back to where we started.
The crowd had considerably thinned as dusk approached. We went to the shops outside to buy souvenir items and candles before they closed. As it got dark by 8:30PM, we went back to the esplanade to join the torchlight procession. During the pilgrimage season from Easter till October, there is a nightly procession at 9:00 that starts from the Grotto and winds its way beside the River Gave before crossing the great esplanade on to the far end of the rotunda near Ponte St. Michel and back. A glass-encased statue of the Virgin carried by several men on their shoulders led the way, followed by pilgrims in their wheelchairs being pulled by their uniformed nurses. We joined the rest at the tail-end while the Rosary was being recited in several languages and everyone sang Salve Regina and Ave Maria. There were hidden speakers along the route so one could hear everything clearly and join in the recitation of prayers and singing.
All in all, we spent a peaceful and spiritually-uplifting day. You may not experience a life-changing miracle in the strictest sense of the word, but the experience by itself is already close to one.