A place of Papal prayer

A place of Papal prayer Pope Benedict in Lourdes
Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Greg Daly details how various Popes have been linked with Lourdes from the 1850s to today


In an 1873 letter to Blessed Pope Pius IX, St Bernadette, then Sr Marie Bernard, recalled how Our Lady had appeared to her just four years after the declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, declaring herself to be the Immaculate Conception. “You could say she came to confirm the word of our Holy Father,” she wrote.

If so, this would be just the first of many links between Lourdes and Popes, with Pius IX the following year honouring what was still known as the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes with the title of basilica, and his successor Leo XIII in 1890 establishing February 11 as a day in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Church calendar, with designated prayers, readings, and a place in the Church’s Divine Office. Leo also had a replica of the Lourdes Grotto built in the Vatican gardens.

St Pius X developed the Vatican’s Lourdes grotto and extended the Mass of February 11 such that it was celebrated throughout the Church, proclaiming Lourdes “the most glorious Eucharistic throne in the Catholic universe”. In August 1913 he declared Bernadette ‘venerable’ and signed the decree for the introduction of her canonisation cause.

His successor Pope Benedict XV would be the first Pope to visit Lourdes, presiding as Bologna’s Archbishop Giacomo della Chiesa over the Italian national pilgrimage to the shrine in 1913, with Pius XI also visiting Lourdes, doing so in 1921 as the newly appointed Archbishop of Milan.


In November 1923, Pius XI published the ‘Decree on the heroic nature of the virtues of the Venerable Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous’, observing that “there is no doubt that we are here in the presence of sanctity in the precise and exact meaning of the word”.

Less than two years later, in June 1925, Pius XI had Bernadette declared ‘blessed’ and eight years after her beatification he canonised her on December 8, 1933, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, speaking in his homily about the humility of this “ignorant girl, a simple miller’s daughter, who possessed no other wealth than the candour of her exquisite soul”.

As Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII was Pius XI’s special envoy to Lourdes, for the closing of the Jubilee of the Redemption in 1935, and as Pope he approved the construction of the St Pius X Basilica in the Pyrenean town, writing in 1958, for the centenary of the apparitions an encyclical in which he spoke of Lourdes as a “new outpouring of the Holy Spirit”.

Papal nuncio to France after the Second World War, and a friend of Bishop Pierre-Marie Theas of Tarbes and Lourdes, Cardinal Arnaldo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, went to Lourdes on behalf of Pius XII for the consecration of the basilica, before unexpectedly becoming Pope John XXIII in October 1958.

It is believed that both Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I had been pilgrims to Lourdes before their pontificates, but St John Paul II would be the first Pope to visit the Pyrenean shrine as Pope.

Plans to visit Lourdes for 1982’s Eucharistic Congress had to be shelved due to the after effects of the 1981 assassination attempt on St John Paul II, but in 1983 he came to Lourdes to celebrate the feast of the Assumption.

At the end of a torchlight procession that evening he prayed for an end to the oppression and injustices of the age, speaking of hunger, war, terrorism, kidnapping, torture and other ills and singling out the persecution of people for their religions.

“Today, the day of my pilgrimage to Lourdes, I would like to embrace in my thought and with the heart of the Church, all those who are suffering persecution in our day and age,” he said, continuing, “today, to prison, concentration camps, hard labour, expulsion from one’s own country, has been added other forms of punishment less remarked but more subtle: not a bloody death but a sort of civil death; not only segregation in the prison or camp but permanent restriction of personal freedom or social discrimination.”

St John Paul II returned to Lourdes in August 2004, on what would turn out to be his final pastoral trip outside Italy during the year that marked 150 years since Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Speaking at Mass there on 15 August, the Polish Pope spoke of Mary as “a model for our pilgrim way”, noting that: “The faithful have understood this. That is why they throng to this grotto in order to hear the maternal counsels of the Blessed Virgin.”


In his homily, he noted how Mary had entrusted her message to a young girl, and called on women to be “sentinels of the invisible” and to do all in their power to ensure that every single life is respected from conception to its natural end.  “Life is a sacred gift, and no one can presume to be its master,” he said.

Born on the feast of the then Blessed Bernadette in 1927, it should perhaps not have been surprising that shortly after succeeding St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made known his intention of making his own pilgrimage to Lourdes in 2008 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Apparitions.  Visiting the shrine over September 13-15, the then Pope followed the Jubilee Way across the town and over three days prayed with 300,000-400,000 people.

Speaking of how “the power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us”, the then Pope said: “It is this mystery of the universality of God’s love for men that Mary came to reveal here, in Lourdes. She invites all people of good will, all those who suffer in heart or body, to raise their eyes towards the Cross of Jesus, so as to discover there the source of life, the source of salvation.”

He later noted that “the primary purpose of the shrine at Lourdes is to be a place of encounter with God in prayer and a place of service to our brothers and sisters, notably through the welcome given to the sick, the poor and all who suffer”, and said that at Lourdes, God’s mercy was made manifest through Mary who “comes to us as a mother, always open to the needs of her children”.

The devotion of Pope Francis to Our Lady is well known, of course, whether through his particular fondness for ‘Our Lady, Undoer of Knots’, his visits to such shrines as Fatima and Guadeloupe, or his prayers in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, before trips abroad. His plan – announced in 2014 – to visit Lourdes in 2015 had to be shelved, but it cannot be long, surely, before the deeply Marian first Pope from the New World visits the most famous Marian shrine in the Old World.