Pilgrims experience 'heaven on earth' in Lourdes
LOURDES, France — Today the Marian pilgrims found this picturesque town where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a poor shepherd girl a place replete with grace. Signs of Our Lady's love and affection were everywhere, and God's love was abundant in everything they experienced.
Mass Wednesday morning was celebrated at the Grotto, the site of Mary's 18 appearances to the 14-year-old St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The pilgrims from Charlotte joined hundreds of other pilgrims from around the world to worship and receive the Eucharist.
Father Timothy Reid concelebrated the Mass with priests from Michigan and Tennessee as well as from Germany and India.
This was Father Reid's first trip to Lourdes, and the pilgrims could see by the expression on his face at Mass and throughout the day that he was having a wonderful time.
"It was a grace-filled day," he said.
After Mass the pilgrims took a guided tour of the grounds around the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, learning the history of the apparitions and the subsequent miracles attributed to the healing waters of Lourdes. They also toured the Basilica of St. Pius X, the house where St. Bernadette was born and the Cachot – the small, one-room former jail that she lived in with her family after they lost their home and were forced to live in extreme poverty.
"Boy, you really have to suffer to be a saint!" said Nancy McGahey after learning about St. Bernadette's struggles and the poverty her family endured.
The pilgrims then ventured into another section of town and toured Sacre Coeur, the church where St. Bernadette was baptized and attended Mass with her family. Pilgrims took the opportunity to dip their fingers into the baptismal font and light candles for their intentions there.
After lunch, the pilgrims had the opportunity to go to the baths near the Grotto to be immersed in the storied waters of Lourdes. Many pilgrims waited in line for an hour or more to step into the frigid water (which is about 54 degrees).
The bath houses at Lourdes are well-organized for the long lines of pilgrims who have been coming here every day for the past 150 years.
The baths are separated to allow privacy for men and for women, and attendants are at hand to help anyone in need or too ill to undress and step down into the water themselves. While the attendants are always present to assist each person, it is still a very private, prayerful moment for each pilgrim.
Nancy Vanderkaay and her husband Rick were among those who came to experience the waters at Lourdes – she at the women's bath house and he at the men's. Each immersion lasted about a minute.
"It was a beautiful, beautiful experience. It was so filled with the Holy Spirit. But what was so beautiful was what came into my mind at the last minute – (it) blew me away," Nancy said. "I wasn't afraid. I just kept praying."
Nick Matalanis opted to splash water on his face and over his head instead of fully immersing in the bath. Some pilgrims also choose to drink from the waters.
"I splashed water on my head and prayed. I am not specific (in my prayers). I know the Blessed Mother knows what I need."
Aida Tamayo also went to confession after going into the baths.
"I met a priest from Burgess, Spain, who was interested in the Carmelites! I told him I was a Carmelite. I spent 20 minutes in there (talking with him)," she said afterwards.
Some pilgrims also made the Stations of the Cross.
"We turned around and saw the view at the top and were like, 'We're in the Pyrenese Mountains!' It was beautiful," Vanderkaay noted.
Later in the afternoon, pilgrims also participated in the Eucharistic Procession from the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to the massive underground Basilica of St. Pius X. People from all over the world processed behind the Most Blessed Sacrament – some walking, others being wheeled in wheelchairs or on gurneys.
The sick come from all over the world to pray and to drink or bathe in the waters here. Lourdes is France's most visited pilgrimage destination, and one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Secular and Church experts have scientifically documented dozens of ill people being miraculously healed after visiting Lourdes, a grace attributed to their prayers and their faith.
Following dinner, the pilgrims participated in Lourdes' spectacular candlelight procession at dusk – one of the most well-known sights in this sacred place. Holding luminaries, they made their way behind a statue of the Immaculate Conception as it was processed from the Grotto to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Each luminary featured images of Our Lady or St. Bernadette, along with prayers and hymns printed on the sides.
The rosary was prayed during the procession and this evening it was the Glorious Mysteries. In between the decades, the pilgrims sang "Ave, Ave, Ave Maria" two times as they lifted their candles – a majestic sight to behold.
At the closing prayer, the bells of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception rang and rang and rang – sounding a powerful end to the pilgrims' journey to know and love Jesus more through His Mother Mary.
— SueAnn Howell, senior reporter
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See more photos, learn about the people and places of the Church in France and the devotions they inspired and see the journey through the pilgrims' eyes: http://triptofrance.tumblr.com/