Lourdes today is far different from the isolated mountain hamlet of 1858. During the main pilgrimage season that runs from Easter through the end of October, an average of 25,000 pilgrims gather here each day in the shrine located in the center of Lourdes. Several huge basilicas and churches dominate the grounds, each with many services throughout the day and evening. The torchlight processions for which Lourdes is famous wind between them, a flickering ribbon of light held by pilgrims singing hymns of praise to Mary.
While Lourdes has clearly changed from the time Bernadette saw the first vision, the heart of the grotto remains essentially the same. The large outcropping of stone known as Massabiele is still there, and in the niche where the lady had appeared to Bernadette stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, her hands joined in prayer as her eyes gazed heavenward. Below, a long line of people slowly wind into the area beneath the stone, where they reverently touch the rock and leave photographs, flowers, and other tokens near the spring that had been uncovered by Bernadette. A rack of candles burns brightly in front of the grotto, and nearby is a line of spigots where people collect water from the spring.
I visited Lourdes on the days surrounding February 11, the anniversary of the first apparition and a feast day of Bernadette. More than 20,000 pilgrims would join me in the celebrations at the shrine. (About 25,000 pilgrims are present daily in Lourdes during the main pilgrimage season that runs from Easter through the end of October.) The diversity of people was striking: nuns in long habits, elderly couples, young people traveling in groups, elegant Italian women in fur coats, and groups of men holding large banners aloft bearing the names of their cities and churches. As the parade of people passed, I was reminded of the characters in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s stories about a fourteenth-century pilgrimage to Canterbury, England. He would recognize this air of excitement and anticipation, I thought, though the young people’s facial piercings would likely surprise him.
After several more blocks, the commercial district ended and I reached the entrance to the shrine. Just inside St. Joseph’s Gate, a large marble statue depicted the Virgin Mary appearing to a man in a hospital bed. A few more steps and a huge basilica came into view, an imposing structure with a gilded crown set atop its lower level. Two ramps extended like arms from each side, ending in a huge square and esplanade capable of holding many thousands of people.
Once I wandered around to the side of the basilica, I was relieved to see that the heart of the grotto remained essentially the same as it had been all those years before. The large outcropping of stone known as Massabiele was still there, and in the niche where the lady had appeared to Bernadette stood a statue of the Virgin Mary, her hands joined in prayer as her eyes gazed heavenward. Below, a long line of people slowly wound into the area beneath the stone, where they reverently touched the rock and left photographs, flowers, and other tokens near the spring that had been uncovered by Bernadette. A rack of candles burned brightly in front of the grotto, and nearby was a line of spigots where people collected water from the spring.
While the grotto was the heart of the sanctuary, I found the rest of the complex intriguing as well. Several huge churches welcome the hordes of pilgrims that throng here, each with many services throughout the day and evening. My favorite was the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, a Roman-Byzantine structure with exquisite mosaics.
While its physical setting is striking, the shrine’s power is also interwoven with the pilgrims who journey here. Scenes from my time there stand out sharp and clear in my memory. I remember a young woman, her face open and vulnerable, kneeling on the cement before the grotto in the falling rain, and a friar wearing a brown cape who looked like he had stepped out of a tapestry from the Middle Ages. I recall the Italian woman who noticed me standing near the water fountains and gestured me forward with a broad smile and the words “Bella! Bella!” I remember the many people in wheelchairs at all the processions and services, and the pilgrims who waited patiently to take their turn in the baths near the grotto.
It is not surprising, I think, that so many of the great pilgrimage sites are connected with the Virgin Mary, from Fatima in Portugal to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. These sites have a special place in the hearts of pilgrims because of the nurturing mother who stands at the center of them. Like any mother, she beckons her children to come home, an invitation that is answered by millions of people each year.
As for me, when I recall my trip to Lourdes I remember the grand drama of my experiences there, the processions and masses and the exultant feeling of being surrounded by so many pilgrims. But I recall with special fondness something that may seem small and trivial in comparison—all those shops selling Virgin Mary souvenirs. While one can complain about the commercialism, I think there’s something pleasingly subversive about those endless shelves of knick-knacks. I imagine the places where those trinkets are likely to end up, how they will find their way into nursing homes, hospital rooms and bedside tables, into the pockets of chemotherapy patients and the hands of soldiers going off to war. Though small and inexpensive, those tokens carry a powerful message: they are a reminder that the broken and wounded will be the first to enter the Kingdom of God, that miracles are possible even when the darkness seems overwhelming, and that the most unlikely among us can receive a life-changing vision of light.