Saturday, May 1
This morning I am waiting for a turn at the baths here in Lourdes. On long wooden benches under a stone portico sit the malades, the sick, along with their companions and other pilgrims. Flanking me are two men from our pilgrimage with the Order of Malta. One, a fortyish red-haired man, is strangely quiet. Later I learn that he is suffering from a form of dementia brought on by Lyme disease. His caring wife suffers greatly. Carved in the stone wall are the Virgin’s words to St. Bernadette: Go drink of the spring and bathe yourself there. Every few minutes the Ave Maria is sung in another language.
After an hour, the three of us are called into a small room surrounded by blue-and-white striped curtains. Once inside we strip to our undershorts and wait patiently on flimsy plastic chairs. From the other side of another curtain I hear the splashing of someone entering the bath, and in a few seconds he emerges with a wide grin. As I wonder if the legend that Lourdes water dries off miraculously is true, another curtain parts. A smiling attendant invites me inside: Mon père.
Inside a small chamber three men stand around a sunken stone bath. My high-school French comes in handy and we chat amiably. One volunteer points to a wooden peg and, after I hang up my undershorts, he quickly wraps a cold wet towel around my waist. (I think they kept them in the freezer for us, says one of the malades at lunch.) Another carefully guides me to the lip of the bath and asks me to pray for the healing I need. When I cross myself they bow their heads and pray along with me. Two of them gently take my arm and lead me down the steps into the bath, where the water is cold, but no colder than a swimming pool. Asseyez-vous, one says, and I sit down as they hold my arms. Here, praying in this dimly lit room, in this spring water, held by two kind people, I feel entirely separated from the rest of life. And then - whoosh - they stand me up and point to a statue of Mary, whose feet I kiss. Then I’m handed a quick drink of water from a pitcher.
As a volunteer shakes my hand, another asks for a blessing. So, wearing only a towel, I bless the men, who kneel on the wet stone floor and cross themselves. "The first time you’ve blessed without your clothes?" asks one, and we laugh.
I dress quickly and rush over to the Grotto at Massabieille where our group is celebrating Mass. And, yes, the water dries from my skin immediately.
Sunday, May 2
A gargantuan church, called the Basilica of St. Pius X, was built underground in 1958 near the Grotto of Massabieille, where the apparitions took place. It seats 25,000 people but can hold 30,000. The concrete structure would resemble an enormous oval parking lot were it not for huge portraits of saints, perhaps 10 feet high, that line the walls. One banner reads Bienheureux John XXIII. The French word for blessed means, literally, well-happy and seems a far better one than our own. In the morning our group processes to the underground church for a solemn Mass for the Order of Malta, whose members are gathered in Lourdes for their annual visit.
There are scores of priests in the sacristy, dozens of bishops, and even three cardinals. The entrance procession, which makes its way through tens of thousands of malades, companions, knights, dames, pilgrims, students and everybody else, is almost alarmingly joyful. High above the floor, mammoth screens show the words of the hymn, which, now in English, now in French, now in Italian, now in Spanish, now in German, are taken up by the throng. At Communion time I am handed a gold ciborium brimming with hosts and am pointed to a young Italian guard who carries a yellow flag. He has a girlfriend in America, he explains, and maybe she could call you if she needs to talk? Flag aloft, he leads me into a sea of people who engulf me and stretch out their hands for Communion, as if it’s the most important thing in the world, which of course it is.
Later on, walking with a Franciscan priest, I am asked by a French pilgrim to hear a confession. So we sit on a stone bench in the sun, and when we have finished, I look up. A little line has formed. An Italian man sits down next. Before giving a penance, I tell him that while I might not understand everything he is saying, God does.
Monday, May 3
At 6:30 this morning a group of us leave for the house of St. Bernadette Soubirous, called the cachot because it had been a jail before her destitute family had moved in. In René Laurentin’s biography Bernadette of Lourdes, he notes that in this dank, four-by-four-meter hovel, two beds served six people.
Before we arrive, a sister has arranged the cachot for Mass, which will be celebrated by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington, D.C., who has joined our group for a few days. Because of the room’s size, only the malades and their companions can fit, along with the cardinal, another priest, myself and the two Jesuit friends who have come with me to Lourdes: one a deacon, one a priest. As the Mass begins, 30 people, many of them seriously ill, turn their expectant faces to the cardinal. He puts them at their ease instantly, and says that we all feel like sardines, and not to worry about standing up during the Mass, since sardines don’t have to. Everyone laughs. Yesterday the cardinal led a huge eucharistic procession near the Grotto. It is a marvel to see a priest who can preach both to thousands and to a handful of people. He offers a short, moving homily on the meaning of suffering, and I think of the incongruity of it all: we are here because of a poor 14-year-old girl.
On a rainy afternoon I spend a few hours in a vaguely Gothic building with a white-and-blue sign out front: Confessions. Before the building is a statue of St. John Vianney kneeling. In a narrow hallway people sit placidly on benches outside doors that announce confessions in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German and Italian. There are more Germans than anyone else. Every few minutes someone pops into my English cubicle and asks hopefully, Deutsch?
Tuesday, May 4
Tomorrow we will return to the States, so I decide to return to the baths today. Inside is a gregarious attendant I have met before, and with a broad smile he shouts out, Mon ami! Amazingly, the other volunteer spies my cassock and says, You are a Jesuit? Then you know my family. When I look confused, he says, I am Polish and my name is Kostka. So I am helped into the bath by mon ami and a member of the family of St. Stanislaus Kostka, one of my Jesuit heroes.
In the afternoon, brushing my teeth in the hotel bathroom, I think that if Mary were to appear today, it would probably would be in a place as unlikely as a bathroom. After all, the original apparitions at Lourdes occurred in a filthy place where pigs came to forage. When I enter the lobby, an elderly man from our group asks to speak with me about something that happened to him in the baths this morning.
This rational and sensible Catholic has come to Lourdes after a long illness. (I’ve changed some of the details here, but not the essentials.) Through tears he says that after visiting the baths, he was in the men’s bathroom and heard a woman’s voice say, in a few words, that his sins were forgiven. The bathroom was entirely empty, and there are obviously no women anywhere near the men’s baths at Lourdes.
Before coming to Lourdes, he had prayed for this grace. Despite a recent confession, he still felt the weight of his sins. In response, I tell him that there are many ways that God communicates with usthrough insights, emotions, memoriesand that while people rarely report this type of experience, it is not unheard of. Something similar represented a pivotal event in Mother Teresa’s life. He is surprised when I say that I was just thinking that a bathroom wouldn’t be such a bad place for a religious experience. And though it’s unexpected, it makes sense: a grace received in a clear and distinct way while on pilgrimage. Besides, I say, your sins really are forgiven.
"What did the voice sound like?" I ask. "Oh," he says, "very peaceful."
Early the next morning, before our flight home, I make a final visit to the Grotto. Even before dawn, there is a Mass being celebrated, and pilgrims are already here, kneeling before the space, running their hands over the rock, praying the Rosary and hoping for healing, as they have been doing since 1858.
An orange sun rises over the basilica, and the bells chime the first clear notes of the Lourdes Hymn as I cross the square.