Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Fr Robert McCabe reflects on his Lourdes pilgrimage experiences
A visual harmony of architecture impresses pilgrim and tourist alike who make their way to the Grotto of Massabielle. The spires, mosaics and statues which surround the golden cross and crown provide a welcome relief and spiritual focus after the distraction of bright bars, souvenir boutiques and cosy cafés in the town.
The muffled murmur of pilgrims passing each other in Rosary Square is pierced by a clear instruction “if you pleeese…do not move…on the count of three…one, two three…thank you…and another if you pleeese!”
As a diocesan cheer and applause subsides, the photographer emerges from below his old-style blanket and is helped down his ladder. Another roll of film is on the way to a local photo studio. The large prints will soon find their way into many corners of the world – schools, nursing homes, factories, local diocesan archives and even to The Irish Catholic. For many in these pictures these days in Lourdes are a dream come true – particularly if they are recovering from ill health or a family bereavement.
Meanwhile, a platoon of College and Transition Year students are busy improving their three-point turns and their wheelchair techniques so that they can bring pilgrims back to Accueil Notre-Dame. Like all young helpers in Lourdes they are placing others’ needs before their own.
One young pilgrim is delighted with the unbroken line of chariots and brings a smile to all the helpers with his suggestion that they are like a line of baby elephants holding tails and trunks!
With the recent reordering of the grotto area and the relocation of the water taps and candle shrines, visitors can enjoy a more prayerful journey towards the heart of Lourdes. The new installation of maturing trees calms pilgrims and tourists who wait to pray before the statue of the Immaculate Conception and to admire a candelabra which warms, comforts and inspires.
Changes and renovations are not a novelty in this Sanctuary but a necessity. The current project led by Bishop Brouwet of Tarbes and Lourdes, is a seamless continuation of hopes of his predecessor Bishop Laurence in the early 1860s.
Like successive parish priests of Knock – particularly Msgr James Horan – Dr Laurence and Abbé Peyramale (the local parish priest) and other diocesan authorities showed great practical foresight once the apparitions of Our Lady had been authenticated.
Files in the diocesan archives describe the plans of Dr Laurence to purchase the title deeds of the grotto area in 1861 for 971 francs and 44 centimes. It is noted that a portion of this amount went towards the filling-in of potholes between the town and the grotto! Title deeds were formally transferred to the Bishop of Tarbes and his successors in September 1861 following Napoleon III’s signature of the paperwork from his camp at Châlons.
Abbé Peyramale immedately set to work improving the access routes for large groups who wished to visit the grotto and to collect water from the miraculous spring. The zig-zag path was completed in 1863. The river was channelled away from the grotto area to facilitate larger gatherings.
Diocesan archives record the “bold and daring decision reached by Dr Laurence after much reflection, consultation and prayer” to build directly above the Grotto. The foundations were set in place for the crypt and the upper church. Bernadette’s father François joined his fellow labourers in this work and was paid the daily rate of 1 franc 50 centimes. Stonemasons and other skilled labourers received two francs per day.
42 square metres of marble paving stones were added to the Grotto area in 1866. Meanwhile, Dr Laurence was arranging for the purchase of the Domaine de Savy – the present-day Rosary Square and Esplanade Rosary Basilica – which would be developed in 1908.
The verse of the Lourdes Ave which runs “Come here in procession / to praise God and sing. / To wash in these waters / and drink at this spring” reminds pilgrims of the immense work completed by diocesan authorities in Lourdes so that the conversion of heart desired by Our Lady might continue across the generations.
In the reconfiguration of the pathways, fields and streams around the grotto we certainly could perhaps identify a visible proclamation of Isaiah and John the Baptist’s call to make “the crooked straight and the rough places plain”.
The terrain has certainly changed since Bernadette made her journey to Massabielle to gather firewood with her sister Toinette and friend Jeanne.
Her faithful transmission of Our Lady’s requests have ensured that countless pilgrims – including two Popes – have been able to enjoy the peace of the grotto and to renew their faith as they seek to find, follow and fulfil God’s plan for their lives.
Neither Bernadette, Abbé Peyramale nor Dr Laurence could have imagined the construction of the underground basilica, the descent of soldiers by parachute near the grotto, the jumbulances or the purpose-built hospital.
Neither could they have imagined that almost 15,000 military personnel would gather around the grotto in prayer for peace and reconciliation every month of May.
Fieldcraft and camouflage skills which were honed in basic training will be reversed for this week. The shapes, shine, shadows, surfaces, silhouettes and sounds of the grotto will allow young soldiers from Ireland to join with men and women of good will from 34 different nations to pray God’s blessing on the years ahead.
Some will carry intentions of prayer for relations or will be lighting a candle for a grandparent or a relation who has been given the ‘all clear’. Others will accompany the children from the Curragh Group in the Torchlight Procession and steer them behind the Pipe Band in the parade towards the Grotto.
They certainly showcase the ‘field hospital’ image which is so favoured by Pope Francis, for instance when saying: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
As we mark 160 years since the meetings between St Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, I thank God for the many friends of Lourdes who have helped me to discover the transforming message of Massabielle. Fr Michael Casey OP at Maynooth, the distinctly different voices of Brother Gregory and Père Décha to the ongoing improvisations of Brother Jean-Paul Lécot; the caring nursing role of Sr Patrick, Sr Mercedes and her team of sacristans; Sr Thérèse Marie and the Poor Clare Community; diocesan and Defence Forces colleagues, tour guides all whose photos, prayercards or good example have nourished my visits to Lourdes every year.
Fr Robert McCabe served as a Defence Forces chaplain until February 2016. He is a priest of the Diocese of Meath and an honorary chaplain to Lourdes