The members of the Order of Malta, or at least its American branches, concluded their annual one-week pilgrimage to Lourdes in May. As in the past few years, I participated as a guest of (and chaplain for) the “Federal Association” of the order, which makes its home in Washington, D.C., but draws its membership from farther afield. Accordingly I shared Masses, Marian processions and meals with a diverse and accomplished group of men and women from Maryland and Virginia, to be sure, but also from Texas, Georgia and Florida.
This year is a jubilee year in Lourdes, the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette Soubirous, a young girl living in squalor in the small town in southern France. Signs of the jubilee were everywhere, the most obvious being the gargantuan number of people. Yet despite the massive crowds, life in Lourdes was, as always, cheerful, calm and well organized. (Compare that to my first sight of Pennsylvania Station in New York on my return, where, despite their far lower number, the crowds seemed much grumpier, and my appreciation for what happens in Lourdes deepened considerably.)
Lourdes is a marvelous mix of pomp and simplicity. For the pomp, few places outside Rome can match the pageantry of the pontifical Masses celebrated in the vast underground concrete church, the Basilica of St. Pius X. That worship space, the site of the largest Masses in town, is saved from looking like a 1960s-era parking lot only by the immense banners with pictures of saints from around the world. (I seem regularly to find myself seated under the picture of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei.) Besides the 25,000 pilgrims and the hundreds of priests and deacons, the assembled dignitaries included Cardinals Pio Laghi and Roger Mahony, not to mention Archbishops George Nied-erauer of San Francisco and Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, and Bishops William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., William Murphy of Rockville Center, N.Y., and Michael Cote of Norwich, Conn.
Other prelates, despite the long list of names of episcopal personages on the program, remained somewhat mysterious to me. I walked up to one bishop and complimented him on his lovely homily, only to find out later that he hadn’t spoken at the Mass at all! (Fortunately, he spoke little English and gleefully accepted my words of praise.) At Sunday’s Mass, Fra Matthew Festing, the order’s new grand master, offered the prayer of the Order of Malta in Latin, and though the good-natured Englishman confessed that his command of the language was no better than that of an “idle schoolboy,” it sounded fine to me.
My First Latin Mass
Speaking of language proficiency, while my schoolboy French miraculously returns each year in Lourdes, my Latin does not, for the simple reason that I don’t know any. Nonetheless I celebrated (or rather, concelebrated) my very first Latin Mass in Lourdes, which is a fine place to ring in the old. Another Jesuit and I were pulling a cart carrying one of the malades (the French word used in all languages for those seeking healing at Lourdes) into the underground basilica when we got stuck in the crowd and ended up at the tail end of the procession. There were a few extra seats in the first row, and I was politely pulled up to the very first seat. The priest behind me laughed and muttered, “I hope you know your Latin, because you’ll probably be brought up onto the altar.”
I was. Fortunately, all the official liturgies in Lourdes are astonishingly well organized. The French M.C. silently handed me a little Mass booklet, so that when Pio Laghi peered at me over the stone altar, I could look like I knew what I was doing.
As with the rest of the Catholic Church, in Lourdes the personal makes its home alongside the public, and the powerful rubs up against the powerless (though who is which is always a good question). At the center are those whom Bishop William Curlin, retired bishop of Charlotte, N.C., always calls “our beloved malades.” On our pilgrimage this year I met dozens of malades, their families and friends, as well as the knights and dames of Malta, who were there to help accompany the malades to the baths, push their carts so that they could get a good spot in the grotto during Mass, fetch them a drink of water, make sure that they got their coffee and croissants in the morning, and, most of all, pray with them.
To mark this jubilee year, Pope Benedict XVI granted a plenary indulgence to those who, while in Lourdes, visited four sites: first, the Grotto at Massabielle; second, Bernadette’s home at the time of the apparitions (called the “Cachot,” after the French word for “jail,” which is what the place had been before the Soubirous family took up residence); third, the church of her baptism; and fourth, the “hospice” where she made her first Communion. This two-hour-long pilgrimage (along with confession) seemed, while arduous, not too high a price for the full remission of temporal punishment for my sins.
It was the object of some humor that the sole street that the town seems to have chosen to repair this year is the one leading to the Cachot. This meant not only that the helpful white line painted along the streets to enable pilgrims to find their way simply stopped, but also that wheelchairs and carts would find it hard to make their way to one of the central spots of worship in the town. “Gee,” said a friend, “why didn’t they repave the grotto while they were at it?”
My own plenary pilgrimage was completed on a sultry day, and I felt happy when I finally received the last of four stickers to affix to the little blue paper disk that I had been given by an official in the sanctuary. (I imagined presenting my little disk to God when I get to heaven, saying, “Do you accept these here?”) The next day at Mass, though, we all received an indulgence, courtesy of the Bishop of Tarbes, Jacques Perrier. It made many of us wonder what we would do with two plenary indulgences. The answer from a Jesuit friend: offer one for a deceased person. This I did, for my father.
What was the best part of the trip? That’s easy: being with the generous knights and dames, the tireless volunteers and companions, and especially the hopeful malades. Each of the malades comes to Lourdes for different reasons. As a group, they are at different places with their illnesses. (This year I heard anger for the first time, which struck me as bracingly honest and real.) But all were hoping for some sort of healing—physical, emotional or spiritual. With all the good humor and faith of the malades, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget the deep emotions that lay just underneath the surface, but conversations can quickly turn serious over breakfast, lunch or dinner, or while you’re waiting in line for a bath. Tears come quickly at Lourdes and flow as fast as the Gave River, which runs silently past the grotto.
Spiritual healings come quickly, too; but after I return people always ask me about the physical ones. Were there any miracles? Yes, though maybe not as dramatic as the 66 authenticated ones. For example: One man in our group had suffered from injuries during the first Persian Gulf war and, as a guest of the Order of Malta, had come to Lourdes seeking healing. His eyesight, never good, had deteriorated since being injured. He told me, while we were waiting in line for the baths, that as soon as he landed in Lourdes his eyesight somehow seemed to get even worse. Someone suggested he take off his eyeglasses to let his eyes rest. A few minutes later, he told me, he could see perfectly well. “Look,” he said, “I can read your nametag from here.” And he did, from a few feet away. “I haven’t been able to see that well for 25 years!”
What do you make of that? Well, as one character says in the film “The Song of Bernadette,” for those without faith no explanation is possible; for those with faith no explanation is necessary.