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Header-The Allure of Lourdes

Lourdes

February 11th, is the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes.

 

As I sat down in the train for my trip’s final leg to Lourdes, I could not help but reflect that this was a trip repeated many times by tens of millions of pilgrims from all over the world over the last 155 years. They have embarked with similar expectations. Upon writing down my impressions, I was tempted to think that my account would be of little value, since my story has already been told so many times before.

However, though it is the same story, I have no doubt each trip is different. Part of the allure of Lourdes lies exactly in that each pilgrim’s experiences it differently. Lourdes draws each one to go on the pilgrim’s route. Everyone takes different problems and miseries, and is filled with different expectations.

Mine was a simple four-day pilgrimage, a retreat without Internet, cell phone, camera or even air-conditioning. My expectations were simple. I sought peace of soul in a world that aggressively disrupts that peace. I sought time to reflect and recollect. I expected to be cleansed of so much. I just wanted time to pray to Our Lady and ask her for all that I needed.

 

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A Place of Violent Contrast

My first impression of Lourdes was that it is a place of dramatic contrast, born of violence and extremes. I found it unexpectedly dramatic. The rocky foothills of the Pyrenees are filled with abrupt cliffs, mysterious caves and scraggly brush. The Gave River rapidly flows with violent intensity. While praying at the Grotto, it was not uncommon to feel sudden gusts of strong winds that added to the sense something different and important was happening there. The intensely hot sun of the July day contrasted with the chilly night mountain air.

This contrast is above all present at the Grotto. The Grotto lies inside a huge rocky hill near the river. I had always thought the Grotto was separate from the basilica. However, the huge Gothic sanctuary sits right on top of this massive rock and its stone foundations dig like roots into the rock, dominating and forcing itself upon the wild landscape. However, the Grotto still retains that exuberant wildness that it must have had at the time of the apparitions. The outside of the Grotto is covered with that untamed scrub brush and wild grass that tenaciously cling to fissures in the rock.

Our Lady of Lourdes GrottoAlmost as dramatic as the landscape is the violent contrast of the pilgrims. They come from all over the world and speak in many languages. But the most notable contrast is the extreme cultural clashes one sees between genuine signs of devotion and faith and the most glaring signs of our fragmented postmodernity found in the modern fashions and icons that are found on the pilgrims’ Che Guevara shirts and caps. You cannot help but feel it is the affliction caused by this internal cultural war inside souls that brings many of the pilgrims to Lourdes.

All of this is a fitting stage for the drama that takes place inside souls at Lourdes. You pray in the context of this dramatic setting.

 

The Heart of Lourdes

The heart of Lourdes is the Grotto. All over the city, the signs point to the Grotto. In front of the Grotto, I spent hours praying before a life-size statue of Our Lady that stands some 15 feet above in a large cavity inside the Grotto.

The activities around the Grotto are impressive. It is the site of Masses, adorations and recitations of the Rosary. There are times when you can kneel very close to the statue of Our Lady. There are other times when you must stand back because of the crowds. At night, a tree of large candles illuminates the area and creates an atmosphere of recollection and devotion.

Miraculous Spring at the GrottoThere is a constant flow of people who enter the Grotto and pass by its walls. Deep inside there is the spring of water from which so many cures and benefits have flowed. All enter the Grotto touching the walls of the cavern, now worn smooth by so much touching. Pilgrims touch the walls, bless themselves with the small streamlets of water that flow from little fissures. They put their foreheads on the rock walls. They leave prayer requests, candles and flowers. They ask, pray and beseech for Our Lady’s help. Some leave emotional; others merely curious. However, I noticed that everyone leaves the Grotto serious—no one is laughing.

 

Broken Humanity

Lourdes belongs to a broken humanity, full of the sick and troubled who go there with their impossible cases. It is especially the physically sick and handicapped that can be seen everywhere in an unfortunate display of human ailments of all kinds. The most impossible cases are especially represented and they are cared for with touching solicitude. Tens of thousands of volunteers look after their every need and one sees legions of volunteer ladies who assume temporary white habits or other garb to help these “least of our brothers.”

Here, the handicapped are given charity wholeheartedly. Here, they accept this charity with all humility and gratitude. They are sick and they show no shame in their weak condition that will, in the final analysis, be that of all men. Parades of antique three-wheeled wheelchairs can be seen at all events—Rosary processions, Eucharistic adorations and Grotto visits. Many have received cures at Lourdes; others have simply received the means to deal with their sufferings. All receive special care.

There are, of course, the others who go with maladies of a different kind. These are those with spiritual sufferings. All bring their own crosses and miseries, and I count myself as one of these pilgrims. One is not necessarily relieved of one’s miseries, but you feel as if a balm has been applied that makes it so much more bearable. You leave less broken.

 

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The Nightly Rosary Procession

The Rosary procession is the climax of the day. Every night at 9 p.m., the faithful gather around the basilica for the simple ceremony of praying the Rosary. However, this is no ordinary procession. I witnessed an estimated 90,000 pilgrims on the central plaza at the Saturday night procession I attended.

Every night as you proceed to the shrine, you notice the shopkeepers have put out the procession candles with their paper lantern shades. For a pittance, you buy a candle and head for the procession. There is an atmosphere of exaltation and even triumph that I think comes from a joy in being Catholic—a true unity amid diversity. Although the Hail Marys are said in various languages, all the other prayers are said or sung in Latin without any problem or confusion.

A large life-size statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is carried majestically on a litter down the central plaza and the procession begins. Thousands of Catholics join in. Hundreds of sick in wheelchairs are pushed and pulled by volunteers along the procession route—the special guests of the affair. As night descends, the candlelight lanterns create a marvelous and prayerful ambience.

The procession covers the length of the entire central avenue of the sanctuary. After each decade, a Marian hymn is sung. “Immaculate Mary” is a favorite hymn since it is sung in so many languages. During the refrain, all in the crowd raise their candle lanterns in triumph and praise of the Blessed Mother, a practice that they repeat in the final “Salve Regina.” The basilica has two large esplanades that are like arms enclosing the grand plaza. During the procession these arms are also full of people praying and singing creating the impression of a huge amphitheater of unity. Finally the procession is over, and gradually the huge crowd disperses into the night.

 

A Lady of Passionate SolicitudeAriel view of Lourdes

And what is to be said of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes? How does she express and communicate herself to the faithful? Such opinions by necessity are subjective since Our Lady speaks to souls in different ways. I can only report what I sensed at the Grotto.

The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is in my opinion very French. She does not have the Latin exuberance of Spanish or Italian Madonnas. She stands in the Grotto, discreetly looking upward and measuring her gestures. However, this does not prevent her from giving impressions of great mercy and goodness. Her goodness reminded me of the French merchants and pedestrians I approached with my broken French in the village. They would address you with a very courteous “Bonjour monsieur” and then go out of their way to help you with your problem.

Our Lady’s goodness at Lourdes has something of that same polite and intense goodness full of respect for the person despite his weaknesses. I felt dignified by my dialogue with Our Lady. Inside this enormous respect, she exhibited for me a kind of passionate and maternal solicitude that I had never experienced before.  It was with great sadness that I left Lourdes and the Grotto on that Sunday morning to catch my train. I bid my farewell and slowly left, turning back several times until that last glimpse and final au revoir, a scene that remains in my mind’s eye.

 

A Change and a Promise

On the train back, I reflected a bit on the pilgrimage. Indeed, it was so like the millions of others that traveled the same route. However, it confirmed my idea that each pilgrimage is different and that this is the allure of Lourdes.

Did I find what I sought? I received no great miracle but then again, I did not ask for one. However, I found at the Grotto a maternal gaze, a place where one can go to be heard. I found a place that violently clashes with our modern revolutionary world. Our Lady makes no compromises with the sins of our days but she calls the poor faithful as they are, and beckons them to return to the practice of the Faith.

I returned changed in ways hard to define. I definitely felt peace in my soul. Lourdes puts your soul in order. It has a cleansing effect upon you. I sensed a promise not on the part of Our Lady to me, but rather she elicited from me a promise to return.

My sentiments are those expressed by an antiphon from the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary that is sung at Vespers that says, “Trahe nos Virgo immaculata, post te curremus in odorem unguentuorum tuorum.” (“Draw us, O Immaculate Virgin, we will run after thee because of the savor of thy good ointments). 

 


   

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Pray:  Novena to Our Lady of Lourdes

 

 

 

Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for November 17, 2019

I want to adorn myself, not out of worldly pride, but for th...

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November 17

 

I want to adorn myself, not out of worldly pride,
but for the love of God alone – in a fitting manner, however,
so as to give my husband no cause to sin, if something about me were to displease him.
Only let him love me in the Lord, with a chaste, marital affection,
so that we, in the same way, might hope for the reward
of eternal life from Him who has sanctified the law of marriage.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary


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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Elizabeth’s mother was murdered by Hungarian nobles, proba...

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St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia, she was born in Hungary in 1207. She was a daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife Gertrude, a member of the family of the Counts of Andechs-Meran; Elizabeth’s brother succeeded his father on the throne as Bela IV; St. Hedwig, the wife of Duke Heinrich I, the Bearded, of Silesia was her mother’s sister, while another saint, Queen St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the wife of the tyrannical King Diniz, was her great-niece.

In 1211 a formal embassy was sent by Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia to Hungary to arrange a marriage between his eldest son Hermann and Elizabeth, who was then four years old. This marriage was the result of political considerations and intended as a ratification of an alliance against the German Emperor Otto IV, a member of the house of Guelph, who had quarreled with the Church. Not long after the little girl was taken to the Thuringian court to be brought up with her future husband and, in the course of time, to be betrothed to him.

The court of Thuringia was at this period famous for its magnificence. Its centre was the stately castle of the Wartburg, splendidly placed on a hill in the Thuringian Forest near Eisenach, where the Landgrave Hermann lived. Notwithstanding the turbulence and purely secular life of the court and the pomp of her surroundings, little Elizabeth grew up a very religious child with an evident inclination to prayer and pious observances and small acts of self-mortification. These religious impulses were undoubtedly strengthened by the sorrowful experiences of her life.

In the year 1213, Elizabeth’s mother was murdered by Hungarian nobles, probably out of hatred of the Germans. On December 31, 1216, the oldest son and heir of the landgrave, Hermann, who Elizabeth was to marry, died; after this she was betrothed to Ludwig, the second son. It was probably in these years that Elizabeth had to suffer the hostility of the more frivolous members of the Thuringian court, to whom the contemplative and pious child was a constant rebuke. Ludwig, however, must have soon come to her protection against any ill-treatment and his mother, the Landgravine Sophia, a member of the reigning family of Bavaria and a deeply religious and very charitable woman, became a kindly mother to the little Elizabeth.

The political plans of the old Landgrave Hermann involved him in great difficulties and reverses; he was excommunicated, lost his mind towards the end of his life, and died on April 25, 1217, still unreconciled with the Church. He was succeeded by his son Ludwig IV, who, in 1221, was also made regent of Meissen and the East Mark. The same year, Ludwig and Elizabeth were married, the groom being twenty-one years old and the bride fourteen. The marriage was in every respect a happy and exemplary one, and the couple were devotedly attached to each other. Ludwig proved himself worthy of his wife. He gave his protection to her acts of charity, penance, and her vigils, and often held Elizabeth’s hands as she knelt praying at night beside his bed. He was also a capable ruler and brave soldier.

They had three children: Hermann II (1222-41), who died young; Sophia (1224-84), who married Henry II, Duke of Brabant, and was the ancestress of the Landgraves of Hesse; and Gertrude (1227-97), Elizabeth’s third child, who was born several weeks after the death of her father and later in life became abbess of the convent of Altenberg.

The followers of St. Francis of Assisi had made their first permanent settlement in Germany the year of Elizabeth’s marriage to Ludwig. For a time, the German Franciscan Caesarius of Speier was her spiritual director and through him she became acquainted with the ideals of St. Francis. These strongly appealed to her and she began to put them into practice: she observed chastity, according to her state of life, and practiced humility, patience, prayer, and charity. Her position, however, prevented her from living one she ardently desired: voluntary and complete poverty. In 1225, with Elizabeth’s assistance, the Franciscans founded a monastery in Eisenach.

Shortly after their marriage, Elizabeth and Ludwig made a journey to Hungary; Ludwig was often after this employed by the Emperor Frederick II, to whom he was much attached, in the affairs of the empire. During the spring of 1226, when floods, famine, and the plague wrought havoc in Thuringia, Ludwig was in Italy attending the Diet at Cremona on behalf of the emperor. Under these disastrous circumstances Elizabeth assumed control of affairs, distributed alms, giving even state robes and ornaments to the poor. In order to care personally for the unfortunate she built below the castle of Wartburg a hospital with twenty-eight beds and visited the inmates daily to attend to their needs; at the same time she aided nine hundred poor daily. It is this period of her life that has preserved Elizabeth’s renown as the gentle and charitable chételaine of the Wartburg. Upon his return, Ludwig confirmed all that she had done in his absence.

The following year he set out with Emperor Frederick II on a crusade to Palestine but died of the plague on September 11 at Otranto. The news did not reach Elizabeth until October, just after she had given birth to her third child. Upon hearing the news the queen, who was only twenty years old, cried out: “The world with all its joys is now dead to me.” In that winter of 1227, Elizabeth directed the Franciscans to sing a Te Deum and left the castle of Wartburg, accompanied by two female attendants. Her brother-in-law, Heinrich Raspe, now acted as regent for her son Hermann, then only five years old.

At Pope Gregory IX’s recommendation, Master Conrad of Marburg, a well known preacher of the crusade and inquisitor, had become Elizabeth’s spiritual guide. He directed her by the road of self-mortification to sanctity, and after her death was very active in her canonization. Although he forbade her to follow St. Francis in complete poverty as a beggar, by the command to keep her dower she was enabled to perform works of charity and tenderness.

Elizabeth’s aunt, Matilda, Abbess of the Benedictine convent of Kitzingen near Würzburg, took charge of the widowed landgravine and sent her to her uncle Eckbert, Bishop of Bamberg. The bishop, however, was intent on arranging another marriage for her, although during the lifetime of her husband Elizabeth had made a vow of chastity in the event of his death; the same vow had also been taken by her attendants.

While Elizabeth was maintaining her position against her uncle the remains of her husband were brought to Bamberg by his faithful followers who had carried them from Italy. Weeping bitterly, she buried his body in the family vault of the landgraves of Thuringia in the monastery of Reinhardsbrunn. With the aid of Conrad she now received the value of her dower in money, namely two thousand marks; of this sum she divided five hundred marks in one day among the poor. On Good Friday, 1228, in the Franciscan house at Eisenach Elizabeth formally renounced the world; then going to Master Conrad at Marburg, she and her maids received from him the dress of the Third Order of St. Francis, thus being among the first tertiaries of Germany. In the summer of 1228 she built the Franciscan hospital at Marburg and on its completion devoted herself entirely to the care of the sick, especially to those afflicted with the most loathsome diseases. Conrad of Marburg still imposed many self-mortifications and spiritual renunciations, while at the same time he even took from Elizabeth her devoted domestics. Constant in her devotion to God, Elizabeth’s strength was consumed by her charitable labors, and she passed away in 1231 at the age of twenty-four.

Very soon after the death of Elizabeth miracles began to be worked at her grave in the church of the hospital. By papal command examinations were held of those who had been healed and at Pentecost of the year 1235, the solemn ceremony of canonization of the “greatest woman of the German Middle Ages” was celebrated by Pope Gregory IX at Perugia.

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The Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne

Born in 1814, Alphonse Ratisbonne was from a family of wealthy, well-known Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France. In 1827, Alphonse’s older brother, Thèodore, converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood, thus breaking with his anti-Catholic family whose hopes now lay in the young Alphonse. At 27, Alphonse was intelligent and well mannered. He had already finished his law degree, and decided to travel to Italy before marrying and assuming his responsibilities in the family business. However, God had other plans for him.

While in Rome, Alphonse visited works of art, and strictly out of cultural curiosity, a few Catholic churches. These visits hardened his anti-Catholic stance, and nourished his profound hatred for the Church. He also called on an old schoolmate and close friend, Gustave de Bussières.

Gustave was a Protestant and several times had tried, in vain, to win Alphonse over to his religious convictions. Alphonse was introduced to Gustave’s brother, Baron de Bussières, who had recently converted to Catholicism and become a close friend of Father Thèodore Ratisbonne. Because of the Baron’s Catholicism and closeness with his turncoat brother, Alphonse greatly disliked him.

On the eve of his departure, Alphonse reluctantly fulfilled his social obligation to leave his calling card at the Baron’s house as a farewell gesture.

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Hoping to avoid a meeting, Alphonse intended to leave his card discreetly and depart straight away, but was instead shown into the house. The Baron greeted the young Jew warmly, and before long, had persuaded him to remain a few more days in Rome. Inspired by grace, the Baron insisted Alphonse accept a Miraculous Medal and copy down a beautiful prayer: the Memorare. Alphonse could hardly contain his anger at his host’s boldness of proposing these things to him, but decided to take everything good-heartedly, planning to later describe the Baron as an eccentric.

During Alphonse’s stay, the Baron’s close friend, Count de La Ferronays, former French ambassador to the Holy See and a man of great virtue and piety, died quite suddenly. On the eve of his death, the Baron had asked the Count to pray the Memorare one hundred times for Alphonse’s conversion. It is possible that he offered his life to God for the conversion of the young Jewish banker.

A few days later, the Baron went to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte to arrange for his friend’s funeral. Alphonse reluctantly went with him, all the while making violent criticisms of the Church and mocking Catholic practices. When they arrived, the Baron entered the sacristy to arrange the funeral while Alphonse remained in the church.

When the Baron returned just a few minutes later, the young man was gone. He searched the church, and soon discovered his young friend kneeling close to an altar, weeping.  Alphonse himself tells us what happened in those few minutes he waited for the Baron: “I had only been in the church a short while when, all of a sudden, I felt totally uneasy for no apparent reason. I raised my eyes and saw that the whole building had disappeared. Only one side chapel had, so to say, gathered all the light. In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar. She was grandiose, brilliant, full of majesty and sweetness, just as she is in the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible force attracted me to her. The Virgin made a gesture with her hand indicating I was to kneel.”

When de Bussières talked to Alphonse, he no longer found a Jew, but a convert who ardently desired baptism. The news of such an unexpected conversion immediately spread and caused a great commotion throughout Europe, and Pope Gregory XVI received the young convert, paternally. He ordered a detailed investigation with the rigor required by canon law, and concluded that the occurrence was a truly authentic miracle. 

Alphonse took the name Maria Alphonse at baptism, and, wishing to become a priest, was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. After some time, and at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits and joined his brother Thèodore in founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. Father Theodore spread his congregation throughout France and England, while Father Maria Alphonse went to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he established a house of the congregation on the plot of land where the praetorium of Pilate had formerly stood.

The two brothers died in 1884, both famed and well-loved for their exceptional virtues.  

By Armando Santos  

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In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar"

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