At 61, I must have been the only priest in Britain that had never been to Lourdes. I’ve made up for it since: four times in the last ten years. This July, I went with a group of London-based Nigerians, all contacts of the indefatigable Delia Oku, a former Hoxton parishioner, who began organising this year’s pilgrimage from her hospital bed after a serious operation for cancer, followed by the usual distressing therapy. But she was fully back in action for the trip. Having lived in Paris for a number of years, she took no nonsense from anyone.
The good thing about Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage is that it has a very clear focus: healing and the sick, and an unforgettable story: Bernadette and the appearances of Mary. So simple, so moving and so true. And it is also very ecclesial, in that the diocesan groups from many different countries are prominent, leading the various different liturgies, carrying their banners, and with groups of young volunteers helping the sick. It is the universal Church both at prayer and in action. And there are bishops everywhere.
The liturgies, too: the Masses, the candlelit rosary procession, the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and blessing of the sick, and the services of Reconciliation, etc, are all done with reverence and joy, but without the fussiness of traditionalism or the sometimes off-putting enthusiasm of the more excitable Catholic groups. It is the Church at its best, and there’s time for relaxation as well. It is a serious place without being solemn. It is full of religion, but joyfully and without sentimentality or extremism.
We had our share of little miracles in the group, like the former Catholic and self-declared ‘born-again Christian’, who came with her three teenage children, but who ended up going to confession for the first time in years. You could see her visibly relaxing and warming again to Church, in spite of still asking predictable questions like ‘Aren’t statues idolatrous?’ and ‘Why is there a figure of Christ on the cross?’ We had a married deacon in the group who had been ordained by Cardinal Vincent a few days before the pilgrimage and hadn’t yet had time to perform any diaconate functions. In fact, he didn’t even bring an alb with him. For the final Mass at the Grotto, he went into the sacristy to borrow an alb and stole, and came out walking next to the Cardinal, having been asked to be the deacon and proclaim the Gospel. He was overwhelmed.
Finally, there was my own little miracle. On the final evening we gathered in one of the large chapels for the blessing of the diocesan candle and to say farewell to one another. Three Asian ladies sat down next to me. One of them recognised me as the priest who heard her husband’s confession in Korean three years’ ago on my previous visit to Lourdes. She had two friends with her who had spent the whole week looking for a priest to hear their confessions in Korean, which I was able to do, in spite of being a bit rusty after many years away from Korea. Was it a coincidence that they met me on the last evening? Or another little miracle thanks to Our Lady?
This year we had a bonus. On the final day, 27 July, the 19th Stage of the Tour de France began in Lourdes. It was very brave of the shrine authorities to hand over the piazza in front of the main basilica to the Tour, but it was a wonderful demonstration of the Church embracing the secular and giving it its blessing. Why not? The Church is not aloof from the real world, and never has been. And it was obvious on that glorious, and very hot, day. We left Lourdes later that day vowing to come again.
Fr Paul Graham O.S.A.