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Slice Of Heaven

The faithful come to Lourdes, hoping for miracles, healing and transformation. One skeptical pilgrim follows the path and finds a . . .

September 07, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

LOURDES, FRANCE — When Pope Benedict XVI visits this small town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees next weekend, he will follow in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have come before him.

Like them, he will take Communion, drink from the holy spring and touch the stone at the base of a cliff by the Gave River, where heaven opened to a 14-year-old girl, known as Bernadette, who said she first saw the Virgin Mary there on Feb. 11, 1858. The pope will celebrate the 150th anniversary of St. Bernadette's apparitions, with a pilgrim's heart full of yearning for transformation.

Six million people visit Lourdes every year, including 100,000 volunteers and 80,000 ill and disabled pilgrims seeking cures for their afflictions or the strength to endure them. Since 1858, about 6,800 people have reported being cured at St. Bernadette's grotto, though the Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed only 67 of these to be miracles and hasn't recorded the number of spiritual healings said to have occurred at Lourdes.

Other people come just to witness the sociological phenomenon that daily unfolds; some are cynical or mystified or simply curious, in the way of travelers drawn to other holy sites around the world.

But to visit Lourdes as a tourist is a very different thing from coming here as a pilgrim, as I discovered last month when I joined a group of devout Roman Catholics from Italy for a two-day trip here organized by the Rome-based Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

ORP tours, aimed at taking pilgrims to holy places with spiritual guidance, are sold in North America by Toronto-based Christian World Tours, although I booked my trip from Rome. The tour was conducted in Italian by a priest and guide and included round-trip air, lodging, meals and such activities as walking the Lourdes Jubilee Way and taking part in the sanctuary's candlelight procession.

As an American Protestant still struggling with her faith, not to mention her Italian, I knew I would face special challenges. But I speak French, which helped me in Lourdes, and, as a traveler, I look for transformation wherever I can find it.

Besides, ignorance is no hindrance at Lourdes. Bernadette Soubirous, a poor miller's daughter, could neither read nor write when she went to gather firewood by a hill called Massabielle just outside town. Abbe Francois Trochu, her principal biographer, reported what happened next, in her words:

"I heard the sound of wind, as in a storm. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches underneath the topmost opening in the grotto tossing and swaying, though nothing else stirred all round. Within the opening, I saw a girl in white, no bigger than myself, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head."

Instinctively, Bernadette knelt and prayed the rosary.

She would see the girl in white 17 more times in the next few months, standing in a recess in the cliff surrounded by branches of wild roses. The girl showed Bernadette a trickling spring close by, charged her to tell the local priest to build a chapel at the grotto and finally, on the 16th apparition, told her, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

No one else saw the apparitions, but many people witnessed Bernadette seeing them, physically and spiritually suspended in a state of religious ecstasy like those described by St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi. Water from the spring she discovered while enraptured was the source of miraculous cures reported at Lourdes, which began at the time of the apparitions and have continued to the present day.

Popular acceptance of the apparitions was astonishingly rapid, despite efforts by the town clergy and police to discourage it. As reports spread through the countryside, people began going to the grotto to see Bernadette. By March 4, the date of her 15th vision, 8,000 people crowded in to see her.

Four years after the apparitions, the local clergy deemed them divine and a church was soon built over the grotto. By 1910, bottles of Lourdes water were being sent around the world and a million people were coming to the shrine every year.

"I am here to tell you what happened. I am not here to make you believe," Bernadette often said to doubtful people who confronted her. But the force of her testimony had the opposite effect. Belief blossomed like fields of wild roses.


Early on a Thursday morning last month, at the chapel in Rome's Fiumicino Airport, more than 100 ORP pilgrims gathered. They were of all ages and types, but they had one thing in common: their Roman Catholic faith.

A young man behind me in line had been to Lourdes twice; a fragile older woman nearby was on her eighth trip to the shrine.

Also among the group -- and impossible to ignore -- was a corpulent, heavy-breathing, pink-faced man who complained loudly and brandished his cane in the direction of anyone who happened to be standing nearby.

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