In the park across the river from the grotto, there are newly sculpted Stations of the Cross. These include three extra Stations, one showing the risen Christ appearing to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. There is another, more traditional, wrought iron, series of Stations on the steep, wooded hillside by the side of the main Church, virtually inaccessible by wheelchair.
A third series, non-leaded stained glass windows, is in the Basilica of St. Pius X. This, the largest underground building in the world, can accommodate 25, pilgrims. Archbishop Kevin Macdonald who accompanied the pilgrimage gave the homily this year. One of the participants was taking her first communion. Truly memorable for her. Fortunately the weather this year was fine. It is not always so. Lourdes is in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Mountains mean variable weather. Another day the party drove to St. Savin, a very old, architecturally fascinating, church with breathtaking views over the valley below. A short bus trip from Lourdes, is the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer a funicular railway covering the steepest part of the ascent of a nearby mountain. A brief walk to the top. More stunning views. Plenty more interesting walks. No one complains of boredom. Many return year after year. Although the primary intention is spiritual experience it is also a holiday.
Away from Care Homes in which many stay, for a week they are stimulated by smiling, willing people from all walks of life devoted to their care. Bringing that special teenage sense of excited anticipation they are ideally suited to take pilgrims into the town for shopping or meals out. There is great competition to come. Applicants write an essay saying why it is they who should be chosen.
Their commitment to new responsibilities make a lasting impression. Some rate it more highly than a school skiing trip to Canada!
Carers are all volunteers paying their own fares. By the end of the pilgrimage the whole group — carers and pilgrims - experience a profound sense of blessing.
Follow this street to the bottom of the hill Lourdes is a town of steep hills and sudden dramatic vistas and it takes you into Avenue Bernadette. Equally crowded, equally noisy, this leads directly to the Domaine, the vast enclosed park that contains the baths, sanctuaries, hospital, and all buildings supporting the complex administration of the shrine. This is the section of Lourdes for which the rest of Lourdes exists. All day and every day, a continuous throng is surging toward it. Here are people of many tongues and many garbs: a Scottish stretcher-bearer in a kilt; a Swiss pastor, shepherding his picturesque Swiss flock in their wide lace headdresses; English curates, Italian monsignors, American and Irish bishops in colorful purple; French peasants, American students, Dutch sailors, and bevies of little boys and girls in provincial costume.
The old and the new jostle each other at every turn: donkeys carrying huge bundles of laundry to the convent on the hill; young men tearing through on motor bikes; groups of humble village priests trudging along barefoot; an actress in a long convertible en route to Biarritz. At the corner, cars and buses rush by — until suddenly a girl appears with a big herd of sheep. All halt, resignedly, and wait for her to go through. After all, Lourdes is still very much a country town. Cross the perilous, strident highway, enter the big iron gate, and you are in the Domaine — the refuge where the endless stream of pilgrims turn their backs upon the world outside and give themselves to prayer.
The minute you enter this consecrated area, you yourself feel more peaceful. It is a place of wide green lawns dotted with sacred statuary, of magnificent trees and spacious vistas. All about are rolling hills and the beauty of the grey-green countryside. Pass the fountains where thousands come to drink and to carry away Lourdes water, and soon you come to the very heart of Lourdes, the Grotto.
Here, in a cleft in the mountain wall, flanked by tall pyramids of creamy flowers and hundreds of flickering candles, stands a statue of the Virgin. The sides of the Grotto are worn smooth by all the hands and lips that have reverently touched it. All day long people are praying here, absorbed, withdrawn. Procession after procession comes and goes. For, today, this is the most visited shrine in the world. All because, the people of Lourdes will tell you, a young girl had a vision, and was faithful to it to the end.
The story goes that, nearly a hundred years ago — it was February 11, — the Virgin Mary appeared to a year old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, while she was out gathering firewood. I want people to come here in procession. Pray — tell them to pray! Go and drink from the spring and wash in it. At first a mere trickle, it soon became a powerful stream.
From the beginning, the people believed in Bernadette. She communicated her intense faith and vision to them and they followed her implicitly, built a rude shrine at the spring, and prayed there in increasing numbers. Yet, local authorities scorned the visions, threatened Bernadette and her family, and attempted to close the shrine.
Then the miracles began. A blind man who washed his eyes in the spring water found that his sight was restored. Soon people began to bring their sick from all over the land. Finally, the Church set up a commission to investigate the whole matter. One of the honored guests at that ceremony was a year old man, Louis-Justin Bouhohorts, who owed his life to Bernadette. Although the Church quite early accepted the miracles of Lourdes as authentic, the medical profession did not. In , a young doctor at the University of Lyons was ridiculed because he mentioned that a tuberculosis case he attended had been miraculously cured at Lourdes.
His name was Alex Carrel. However, the implacable professional prejudice against Lourdes had been breaking down for many years prior to that time. The Bureau of Medical Verification, established at Lourdes in for professional study of alleged cures, attracted to the shrine an increasing number of curious doctors of all beliefs. A large number of books have since appeared by medical men of high reputation, discussing the phenomena of Lourdes and giving accounts of outstanding cures.
Yet, the most powerful force in transforming public and professional medical opinion has been the cures themselves. They have constituted a living argument that is difficult to explain away. Their cases are documented in the archives of the Medical Bureau. Here are some of them. In December of , Gabriel Gargam, a railway postal clerk, was at his work sorting mail on the Orleans Southwest Express when the train was wrecked.
He woke up in a hospital bandaged from head to foot. He had been crushed almost to death. His collarbone was broken and his spine was hopelessly injured, paralyzing him from the waist down. The least movement produced vomiting, and he had to be fed painfully through a tube. He could no longer swallow. The doctors warned his family that death was near. Gargam had not set foot in a church for over 15 years. His mother, a deeply religious woman, persuaded him to undertake the pilgrimage to Lourdes. The journey was accomplished with great suffering, on a stretcher.
On his first afternoon at Lourdes, Gabriel lay on the route of the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. He was extremely weak and soon was unconscious — his features relaxed, cold, and blue. At the moment his nurse thought him dying, he suddenly opened his eyes, raised himself on his elbow, fell back again, tried a second time, and succeeded to get up.
Healings at Lourdes
His paralysis was gone. He had recovered entire freedom of movement. He was taken to the Medical Bureau, where doctors and newspaper correspondents surrounded him. Big staring eyes alone were living in his emaciated colorless face.
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In a few days, he gained 20 pounds. His case created a sensation. The 60 physicians who examined him at Lourdes all agreed that this cure was scientifically inexplicable.
Indeed, Gabriel had great difficulty in persuading the incredulous railroad officers to discontinue his annuity. He enjoyed robust health for the rest of his life. He came to Lourdes each year, serving tirelessly as a stretcher-bearer, until his death in at the age of Finally, she was stricken with blindness. Her daughter thought she was dying. Yet, Madame Bire quickly recovered consciousness and found that she could still see.
The diagnosis was forced upon me: here was white atrophy of the optic nerve, of cerebral cause. This, one of the gravest affections, is recognized by all authorities as incurable. Yet, Madame Bire could read the finest print and her distant vision was just as good. They were to disappear a short time later. Ten doctors made a second examination the next day with the same results: the optic nerve was still atrophied and lifeless, but the sight still clear and perfect. Questions followed thick and fast. For nearly six months, I could not see, and now I can see. That is enough for me! They acknowledged that the cure appeared complete.
The future would tell whether it was permanent. A month after she returned home, three eye specialists examined Madame Bire again. They found that the phenomena had ceased. There are no longer lesions. The cure is complete. When the president of the Medical Bureau, Doctor Auguste Vallet, saw her 20 years later, her sight was still excellent. I lived near her, knew the two surgeons who attended her, and knew her parish priest. I know that her cure was genuine. It had grown to such enormous proportions that the pressure had caused chronic gastric troubles and vomiting.
A heart condition made an operation impossible and the case had reached an apparently hopeless stage. As a last resort, Madame Augault decided to go to Lourdes. Her family physician strongly opposed the journey, telling her that she would never come back alive.
However Madame Augault persisted. She made the journey on a mattress, at the end of her strength and very close to death. Four injections were necessary to help her heart during the trip. During the brief instant of her immersion she felt excruciating pain, then the pressure in her abdomen seemed to disappear.
Yet, she was very tired and continued to suffer terribly until she was carried on her stretcher to the Procession at four that afternoon. Then, at the precise moment when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, her sufferings vanished, and she was conscious of a rebirth of her energies.
She stayed on her cot, however, and said nothing about how she felt. The next day she was again taken to the piscine. The attendants who had bathed her before observed with amazement that her abdomen was entirely flat and apparently normal. Moreover, she was able to walk. After this bath, she was taken to the Medical Bureau and examined by some 30 doctors.
The belt worn by the invalid upon her arrival at Lourdes is now seven inches too large. The coat, on which the buttonholes show marks of stretching from the distension of the abdomen, has become much too big and now overlaps considerably. Other extraordinary cures baffled the doctors during those early years of the shrine.
A PROTESTANT LOOKS AT LOURDES
Little Yvonne Aumaitre, daughter of a Nantes physician, was cured, at the age of two, of double clubfoot — the case being recorded by her father in the Medical Bureau records. Constance Piquet was cured of cancer of the breast — an advanced case pronounced inoperable by two Parisian doctors. Marie Le Marchand, her face half eaten away by a tuberculous skin disease, came out of the piscine with only a long red scar to remind her of her former malady.
A vivid account of her before-and-after appearance is on file in the Medical Bureau.
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Such cases gave pause to even the most antagonistic doctors, and the attitude of the medical profession as a whole changed considerably. It was obvious that medical men no longer dismissed the shrine as merely a resort for charlatans and crackpots. This interest of the medical profession has continued.
Grotto of Massabielle, Lourdes
In , some 1, doctors from all over the world registered at the Lourdes Medical Bureau. Many of them, as is true every year, studied the records and helped examine the patients. The International Medical Association of Lourdes, organized in , has an enrollment of 5, doctors, from 30 countries, who assist in the methodical checking of alleged cures. This does not mean there is no longer opposition or hostility. There is plenty. What safeguards are there against fraud? To begin with, every pilgrimage is accompanied by one or more medical personnel and no sick person is accepted without a medical certificate from his home physician stating his or her disease and present condition.
When a supposed cure occurs, the pilgrimage doctor reports at once to the Medical Bureau. The doctors there then examine the patient and discuss the case. Did the illness really exist? Is there a cure? If so, can it be explained naturally? Neurotic cases are ruled out completely. No case is accepted unless there has been some organic change — the healing of malignant tissue, the restoration of wasted nerves and muscles, or the sudden knitting of chronic bone fractures. If the case appears inconclusive, it is immediately dropped. If it is retained, the patient is kept under observation by a local physician for at least a year, and complete documentation, including x-rays, laboratory reports, statements from attending physicians and other witnesses, is collected.
Then, the patient is brought back to Lourdes for another examination by doctors of the most varied backgrounds. Doctor Leuret was a remarkable person: Legion of Honour, Croix de Guerre, professor of medicine and head of a large clinic in the worst section of Bordeaux. How many have occurred at Lourdes? This however, represents the most stringent selection. A large number of actual cures go without official recognition because of insufficient data. Sometimes home physicians have not kept sufficiently precise data.
Other doctors refuse point-blank to furnish x-rays, diagnoses, or laboratory reports. Scores of people who are cured do not report it simply because they dislike publicity. All sell pretty much the same tawdry array of Christian kitsch to the incessant strains of Ave Maria: statues of the Virgin Mary in all. And all because on February 11, a peasant child named Bernadette Soubirous claimed she had seen the figure of a beautiful, smiling girl, wreathed in light, standing in the rockface above a muddy cave just outside town.
Bernadette was just She was illiterate and sickly - a bout of cholera three years earlier had left her asthmatic - and her family, six of them, were reduced to living in a single room, a former prison cell. Over the next five months, Bernadette said, the figure made 17 further appearances. Crowds gathered, though Bernadette was the only one granted visions. On one of the last occasions, Bernadette asked the figure to declare who she was. She replied: "I am the Immaculate Conception. My first visit to Lourdes was nearly 30 years ago when I went for the day during a family summer holiday.
I recall little beyond the crass commercialism and the streets full of wheelchairs with sinister hoods pulled up like crones' bonnets. When the opportunity came last month to return with a pilgrimage from Belfast, those memories were enough to cause me some misgivings. First, there was the question of the pilgrims' vulnerability. Of the thousands of "cures" reported from Lourdes since the apparitions, 66 have been officially recognised as miracles.
The last, involving a middle-aged Frenchman with multiple sclerosis, was ratified by the Church on medical recommendation two years ago.