Three times in my life, I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit the French shrine at Lourdes, where I once even got to celebrate Mass in the famous Grotto, the now venerable but originally undistinguished place where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly girl from an impoverished family, a total of 18 times, from February 11 to July 16, 1858. As I suspect almost anyone who has ever been there will gladly confirm, it is certainly an awesomely inspiring experience to join the millions of people of varied backgrounds who journey to that holy shrine as pilgrims each year. Lourdes, like Rome, offers that very special experience of the universality of the Church, as one joins one’s prayer with pilgrims from all over the world in such great gatherings as the daily afternoon procession with the Blessed Sacrament and the evening candlelight procession and group rosary.
On the occasion of the consecration of the enormous underground basilica at Lourdes in March 1958, the future Pope Saint John XXIII called the daily eucharistic procession at Lourdes "the reenactment of the passing of the living Jesus through the midst of the crowds, to teach them and grant them miracles and graces of all kinds."
In that spirit, it is especially inspiring to see so many sick people travel to Lourdes to pray for physical and spiritual healing there, and also to observe the compassionate and loving way in which the sick are welcomed and enabled to participate in all the various activities. Since 1992, today’s feast of Our Lady of Lourdes has also been designated as the World Day of the Sick. In so designating it, Pope John Paul II (who certainly knew something about the experience of sickness in human life) called it “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church, and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of humankind.”
Now thirty years later, we are immersed in a global pandemic which has killed millions, tested our ability to come together to solve social problems, and fractured what was left of our communal trust and social solidarity. In human terms, it will take time just to assess fully, let alone to recover from, the deep damage done by this pandemic experience. All the more to be cherished, then, is the witness of communal trust and social solidarity among the sick at Lourdes and the caring compassion that characterizes their welcome as pilgrims. All the more grateful should the world be for the beauty of this shrine and the power of its message.
As the shrine now fully reopens after the limits imposed by the pandemic, we may well repeat the prayer with which Pope Saint John XXIII addressed Our Lady at Lourdes in 1958: "Renew the miracles you performed a century ago, and let new wonders follow the old."