Miracles and Mystery

Lourdesby By Elizabeth FicocelliPaulist Press. 181p $16.95 (paperback; with photos)
This coming February marks the 150th anniversary of the apparitions at Lourdes, France, where a desperately poor, illiterate teenage girl had 18 visions of a woman in white who identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception.”

Since then millions from around the world have flocked to the waters of a spring that the mysterious woman revealed to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous. Thousands have claimed miraculous healing there. Six million people each year visit the shrine in the Pyrenees, with 500,000 standing for hours in line to use one of its baths.

Lourdes: Font of Faith, Hope, and Charity is a pilgrim’s guide to the shrine, in which Elizabeth Ficocelli, whose previous books include The Fruits of Medjugorje, brings readers up to date on its continually unfolding story. She says upfront that in her research she struggled to balance her dual roles as journalist and pilgrim, and that it was never her intention to produce a skeptical inquiry into the apparitions or claims of the miraculous.

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The result is a refreshing and sometimes fascinating account from a writer who is at once orthodox and steeped in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, about a shrine that is as oriented to the future as to commemoration of the past. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., a priest and psychologist whose spiritual writings are especially popular among conservative Catholics, has written the book’s foreword and attributes his own recent recovery from serious injuries re-ceived in a car crash to the intercession of St. Bernadette and the Virgin of Lourdes.

The most compelling chapters deal with contemporary ministry at the shrine, especially the work of the volunteers interviewed by the author, who do their utmost to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes an encounter with Christ. Although Ficocelli writes at length about medical cures attributed to Lourdes, her primary emphasis throughout is on Lourdes as a place of spiritual healing.

The water of Lourdes is a sign of a greater water: the water of baptism. To wash recalls the sacrament of baptism, in which our sins are washed away and we become children of God. It is because of our need to be reborn, forgiven, purified and reconciled that we come to this water. The water of Lourdes should not, however, be confused with holy water. It is the faith of the people that makes it special.

Though in general Lourdes is a strong narrative, there are several passages that seem to have been edited with an ax for reasons of space. When the grown-up Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, Ficocelli tells us that she had a troubled relationship with some of her superiors, and offers several reasons why this might have been so. But she never describes what characterized the bad relationship. This gap later widens when one of her order’s superiors was so opposed to Bernadette’s canonization that the cause was not opened until after that superior’s death. Why did the superior feel so strongly? How had she treated Bernadette? Perhaps those unanswered questions will inspire some readers to dig further into St. Bernadette’s life.

The final chapters cover the relationship of Pope John Paul II to the Lourdes shrine (he visited in August 1983—the first “papal pilgrim”) and describe the shrine’s outreach to youth, emphasizing peacemaking and interreligious dialogue alongside its ministry of healing the sick. Those whose mental images of Lourdes are bound up in pre-Vatican II spirituality may be surprised and challenged by its orientation not only toward the present but the future of the church as well.

Especially interesting is Ficocelli’s description of the behind-the-scenes work carried on by 8,000 trained volunteers from throughout the world. These volunteers meet handicapped pilgrims at the train station and airport, and escort them to an accueil, which is a sort of hybrid hotel-hospital. One accueil alone has 900 beds, with medical equipment and the ability to cater to special diets.

The book’s shortcoming—even though, admittedly, it is a “pilgrim’s guide”—is its lack of some basic travel-related information. The author explains how to gain spiritual benefit from a visit to Lourdes and cites the most popular times of pilgrimage as well as the hours of the baths, but not how to arrange a stay at an accueil. Tucked in at the end of the bibliography is a list of Web sites, some of which would no doubt give that information. But a summary by Ficocelli of what each Web site offers would have been helpful. The Web address of the shrine’s official site, www.lourdes-france.org, is buried beneath those of the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic News Service and two conservative Catholic news and opinion forums.

But those are quibbles. Lourdes is a fine book for the person of faith and even the casual visitor to Lourdes—anyone who seeks to understand better its important place in history and its meaning for today. In the words of Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes: “Lourdes is not a museum. Its function is to bring alive the message and to proclaim it to the men and women of the twenty-first century…. [That] message, the message of the Gospel, offers a path of happiness to everyone now and for the future.”

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