For several months I was indecisive about spending £800+ on a week in Lourdes with an itinerary that’s essentially a schedule of religious services around the Basilica. It’s probably more accurate to say I’m less religious than I’m appreciative and understanding of our tradition, and my reason for coming here is exploration.
A great+great+grandmother of mine, a Mary de Vere, lived in this region of France around the same time as St. Bernadette, coincidentally, and also spoke a combination of French-Spanish. Her father/uncle (it’s unknown which), Daniel O’Connell (a.k.a. The Liberator), would certainly have made his pilgrimage here, had he lived another 15 years.
My first impression of Lourdes: Even though I researched the place beforehand, it was still somewhat very different to what I expected. The first thing I noticed, passing through Tarbes, is that everything is so densely green, even more so than Wales. The climate is not much different, despite us being much closer to the equator this time of year. Also, Lourdes isn’t unbearably busy around the Basilica, and in fact there are hardly any tourists beyond a mile of it.
Now it’s true that, on first arriving, you’d think you’d pulled into a Catholic version of Barry Island, but that’s only the case immediately around the Basilica. The novelty of the shops wears off within a day, especially as everything else here is expensive enough. One item I just couldn’t resist buying was this Rosary of metal cubes:
Basilica and the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes
The Basilica and Notre Dame are nowhere near as big as they appear in photos, maybe because they’re overshadowed by the Pic du Jer and the towering peaks behind the Notre Dame. After passing under the arches towards the Grotte de Massabielle, the scene is a lot more impressive, like a garden that stretches as far as the eye could see.
Last night I stayed there to watch the Marian Procession, which I expected would fill the Basilica with many thousands holding candles – that’s what you see in the press photos. Instead it was a much smaller formation of various pilgrimage groups – really couldn’t have been more than 4,000 people at a generous estimate – with the disabled up front. Nonetheless, I thought the Basilica and the Notre Dame looked very pretty.
Thankfully the paper things for the candles had the Ave Maria and the Latin Credo printed on it. I’m not a great fan of the Latin Mass, so I couldn’t recite the latter from memory.
Grotte de Massabielle
After the procession was done, I managed to pass through the Grotte de Massabielle at ~23:00, when I figured it would be quiet.
The story of St. Bernadette and the Grotto is widely known: Bernadette Soubirous, a local ‘illiterate peasant girl’ (as we are constanly reminded), was said to have encountered a series of apparitions of Our Lady here around 1850. One thing led to another, the Notre Dame was built on the Grotto and it became a pilgrimage site. Now it has about 5 or 6 million visitors per year, many of them hoping to be miraculously cured of various afflictions and disabilities.
Some hours ago I returned to fill a couple of small bottles (for a friend) without needing to queue. The Grotto is also quite small – the bit I photographed is basically it.
The plan was to attend Mass here this morning, but that didn’t work out because it was pissing down (still is, intermittently) and no matter where I stood, I was being prodded somewhere else by a
walt who never did a day’s basic ‘brancardier’ wearing some kind of pseudo-military outfit moving various bits of equipment. Noticing a few others were watching from a sheltered position across the river, I decided to follow the proceedings from there.
What do I make of the apparitions and miracles? To be brutally honest, I feel somewhat indifferent, detached and skeptical, but, as you can see, I’m certainly not outright dismissive of the possibility that St. Bernadette experienced something, given what I’ve read of St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas and a number of other saints’ experiences. Personally I honestly don’t think everything in reality has a scientific or materialistic explanation. So, yeah. Many of us take it as given that inexplicable things happen on the rare occasion.
If there’s one very good reason to be skeptical about the Lourdes apparition, it’s the rather sudden increase in Marian apparitions approved by the Church over a period of 100 years from 1830, from around the time Miraculous Medals began circulating. If the medals were popular as they are today (I always wear one), that would disprove the claim that Bernadette couldn’t have known of previous apparition stories simply because she was illiterate. Also, it’s worth noting there was a widespread interest in spiritualism and the occult between 1830 and 1930, among both skeptics and believers. I also can’t ignore that, on the face of it, Bernadette seemed to have a reasonably strong motive for fabricating such a story, but I’ll keep the finer details to myself.
When Jesus, and later St. Peter, healed people, it was seemingly done in defiance of the prevailing idea that a person’s righteousness should be judged by infirmity and outward appearance, and maybe to make a point about human dignity. This point seems lost on those who take the whole faith healing affair too seriously.
Chemin de Croix
Moving onto the Chemin de Croix, this is a trail leading up a mildly-steep hill, along which there are the Stations of the Cross in the form of meticulously crafted sculptures. I might elaborate on these further tomorrow, as I could be doing this properly.
At the first station I saw three guys following the exhortation to ascend the rough stone steps on their knees, perhaps as some anachronistic form of penance. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone do that in real life.
Also near the site is a giant underground basilica, dedicated to Pius X, and it was almost deserted this morning, apart from several tourists in the distance. I expected the Underground Basilica to be little more than a concrete-lined pit, but it’s actually very impressive and atmospheric, especially during a Mass. There are various pieces of artwork around the perimeter, which are difficult to photograph collectively because of the supporting struts.
Off to the side there’s a smaller chapel containing relics of John Paul II and a number of other saints – I couldn’t make out what the latter objects actually were. They looked like a set of quartz crystals with gold around the base.
Several hours later I attended the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, having escorted a severely disabled person there – she was left to follow the itinerary herself by the group she arrived with last night. Back at the hotel I’ve noticed they’re no longer eating at the same table as her, and have been trying to get her to join my little group instead.
Anyway, back to the Blessed Sacrament thing: What basically happens at the procession is they bless and parade the ‘wafer’, which is from that point treated with reverence. We believe it’s the flesh of Christ in quite a literal sense, as had our predecessors since at least the AD 50s. Our reasons for believing that are hard to explain without dedicating a several hundred word essay on how Christianity presents a flesh and blood God to differentiate itself from earlier mythological religions, how Catholicism presents us with things we can see, hear and touch (which is why we have paintings, statues, saints and suchlike) instead of something abstract and distant, and also how the Church needed to borrow from Aristotle to justify the idea of transubstantiation.