Our Lady of Lourdes Turns 158
February 11 is the anniversary of the first appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France in 1858. The first of eighteen times Our Lady would appear to the young French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, over the next several weeks. To this day, people from all over world come to Lourdes to bathe in its waters and seek miraculous intercession through Our Lady and Saint Bernadette.
The Immaculate Conception
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the infallible dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This ex cathedra statement made official the eternal sinlessness of Mary, showing that from the moment of the creation of her soul she was granted a unique grace from God to be excluded from the stain of original sin, enabling her to carry Jesus Christ in her womb. This is a teaching that had been widely believed throughout the Church for at least 250 years before being declared, and it was forbidden to teach to the contrary, but once the doctrine was declared infallibly it became a teaching that all Catholics are bound to believe by faith.
But what does the Immaculate Conception have to do with Lourdes? Bernadette Soubirous first saw apparitions of Mary on February 11th, 1858. On the feast of the Annunciation Saint Bernadette asked Mary what her name was and Mary responded “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette didn’t know what this meant but told her local priest who had heard about the dogma being proclaimed four years earlier.
So in a way, Mary herself confirmed what the Church had already declared. Read more about the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Miracles at Lourdes
A lot of people find the stories of healings and cures at Lourdes hard to believe. In fact, one of the toughest organizations to convince when a supposed miracle happens is Holy Mother Church herself. Of the many cures reported over the years, only 69 have been approved as miraculous by Rome—only 69 cures over 158 years. Just as with the miracles required for sainthood, the Church carefully proves miracles at Lourdes by trying hard to disprove them by determining a natural explanation.
Given that level of scrutiny, you can be sure that if you visit Lourdes, you’re visiting the genuine article—a place where Our Blessed Mother did indeed appear and where she has interceded in a big way.
Who can afford to go to Lourdes?
People seem to go on a lot of pilgrimages these days. You see them in diocesan newspapers, you hear about them on Catholic radio. Perhaps you even have one of those friends who manages to afford at least one pilgrimage every year to some distant port of call, someone who has ridden more buses across Europe than you’ve made trips to your local warehouse store.
Italy, France, the Holy Land. Somehow, people are putting together the wherewithal to do some serious traveling. But what if a pilgrimage across the sea isn’t and most likely never will be within your budget?
Well, in the case of a visit to Lourdes, there’s a group of people who can help—The Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers. Made up of some of the same people who help pilgrims onsite at Lourdes, the Lourdes Volunteers offer a virtual pilgrimage that can happen right in your parish hall.
Technology meets firsthand storytelling.
The virtual pilgrimage features the sights and sounds of an actual Lourdes pilgrimage, along with artifacts from the grotto and samples of Lourdes water.
People who have spent time helping others experience Lourdes paint a vivid picture of what the place is like; there’s nothing like a firsthand account from someone who has been in the heart of it all and watched lives being changed.
If you want to find out about bringing the virtual Lourdes pilgrimage to your parish, just visit lourdesvolunteers.org for information.
And here’s some extra incentive. In 2013 Pope Benedict the XVI issued a decree saying, “a Plenary Indulgence is granted to faithful making pilgrimage to Lourdes or experiencing Lourdes in a Virtual Pilgrimage with North American Lourdes Volunteers by fulfilling the usual norms and conditions between July 16, 2013 thru July 15, 2020.”
All the spiritual benefits of a visit to Lourdes with no airfare or lodgings required!
Virtual or real, do pilgrimages really work?
That depends on what you mean by “work.” Does everyone who goes to Lourdes seeking a miraculous cure get one? No. But given all the crutches, canes and wheelchairs abandoned in Lourdes, something must be going on there.
Are people better off just for visiting? Judging by the number of people who have been there, return there, and pay their own way to volunteer at Lourdes, the answer would seem to be “Yes” in more than just a few cases.
Not long ago, no less a secular outlet than public television featured Lourdes in its Sacred Journeys series. They followed a group of American veterans—wounded warriors—on a pilgrimage to Lourdes; it’s worth watching just to see the reaction of one of the more skeptical young men on the trip.
And so, 158 years after Bernadette first bumped into Mary at the grotto, Lourdes is still going strong—bringing people healing of all kinds and keeping us reminded of the great gift Jesus gave us when, from the cross, he told John, “Behold your mother.”
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.