By Fr. Yulito Q. Ignacio, STL
Lourdes, a town in south-western France, is one of the main pilgrimage sites in the devotion to Mary that attracts millions of Christians from around the world. Each year, around six million pilgrims – including about a million sick people – pass through Lourdes. Lourdes has become the spiritual capital of the world, a place of prayer, healing and pilgrimages.
Lourdes is a place where Christians from around the world can experience God’s presence and Mary’s maternal love and protection. It is a place of service and fraternity between people, where those who are ill or physically-challenged are given top priority.
The year 2008 saw the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes. On 11 February 1858, four years after the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, our Lady appeared to a poor young shepherdess named Bernadette Soubirous. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Bernadette herself was not surprised by this: “It is probably because I was the poorest person in Lourdes that Our Lady chose me.”
Bernadette saw “a lady in a white dress and a white veil, with a blue sash, and with a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary…” This lady (or rather, young girl) smiled at her and, with open arms, beckoned her to come closer. Bernadette said one day, “I looked at her as hard as I could”. A week later, on February 18th, Our Lady of Lourdes spoke to her. She was the first person ever to address Bernadette with the formal vous (meaning “you”); Bernadette was used to being addressed with the more familiar tu.
Our Lady began with a personal message to Bernadette: “Do me the favor of coming here for fifteen days.” She also said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this life but in the next.”
Our Lady gave penitential messages:
Pray to God for sinners…Penitence! Penitence! Penitence!... Kiss the ground in penance for the conversion of sinners…Come and drink from the spring and wash in it… Eat of the grass which is there.
Our Lady of Lourdes was asking us to pray, do penance and penitential exercises. She wished people to convert their life with the spring, a sign of this conversion, which was discovered at the foot of the Grotto of Massabielle on 25 February. The spring at Lourdes is a reminder of the necessity of purification and the call to conversion of life. Our Lady wished people to be healed both spiritually and physically. Several cases of conversion and the healing of people who were ill were recorded in Lourdes at the very beginning by people washing or being immersed in this spring at the grotto of Lourdes.
Our Lady also has an ecclesial message in Lourdes: “Go and tell the priests that people should come here in procession and that a chapel should be built here.” Our Lady was summoning the People of God for building up the Church, the material edifice being a sign of the building up of “God’s Temple,” the spiritual edifice made of “living stones.”
From 11 February to 16 July 1858, Our Lady of Lourdes appeared eighteen times to Bernadette and on 25 March 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation, she revealed her name: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. The apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes were a confirmation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in his Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus:
The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.
The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium no. 53, says that Mary has been “redeemed in an especially sublime manner by reason of the merits of her Son.” Mary has been redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son, and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Our Lady of Lourdes calls us to conversion and she presents herself as “highly favored by God.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace (Lk 1 :28).” God preserved Mary from original sin. God enriched Mary with an abundance of heavenly gifts in view of her unique mission, as the Mother of the Son of God.
Our Lady of Lourdes calls herself “the Immaculate Conception,” meaning she was preserved from original sin. God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son, from among the descendants of Eve. Mary is “full of grace.” Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption (SC 103).” From the first instance of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life (CCC 508).
Our Lady of Lourdes reminds us of this dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mary, therefore, had the unique mission from God to be Mother of His Son-made-man, the Redeemer. She thus shares in a special way Jesus’ salvific mission. From this mission flows her singular grace and privilege of the Immaculate Conception. The “Immaculate Conception” is God’s gift to Mary because she would be Mother of Christ. Our Lady at Lourdes shows us that no one is saved apart from Christ, even those who lived centuries before him. “In view of the merits of Christ” means Mary was made holy by her immediate relationship to Christ, the source of grace, for whom and towards whom all things are created (cf. Col 1:15-17).
Lourdes will ever remind us of Our Lady’s call to prayer, penance and conversion as she presented herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” She was the “highly favored of God.” She is the image of the Church for she is also Mother of the Church, our Mother, who continues her motherhood in the Mystical Body of her Son.
Bernadette Soubirous later entered religious life. During the early years of her novitiate, she said: “I have come here to hide… The Blessed Virgin used me and then I was put in my place. I am happy with it and I stay there.”
It was a joy for Bernadette to be able to spend herself in the service of her sisters in the infirmary at St. Gildard. She did this in her smiling, strong and supernatural way. But for all that, she had no shortage of trials: “I am called to task for holding on to my will too much, I am often called 'self-willed;' that makes me ashamed and yet I do not correct myself.”
Besides her persistent asthma, Bernadette suffered from tuberculosis, which gradually ate into her lungs and bones. She suffered terribly. For her, this was the “penance” which Our Lady had asked of her for the conversion of sinners. But this did not take away her happiness, writing in 1876, “I am happier on my bed of suffering with my crucifix, than a queen on her throne…”
One day Bernadette noted down on a scrap of paper the secret of her joy:“To obey is to love. To suffer everything in silence to please Jesus is to love…”
On the 16th of April 1879, Bernadette bore faithful witness to the end.“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for those one loves.”Love is stronger than death.
Now on my twentieth year in the priesthood, the message of Our Lady of Lourdes continues to inspire me to live more deeply my priestly commitment.
The first time I was in Lourdes was in 1991. I attended a meeting of the Focolare in Castel Gandolfo in Rome and I remembered my mother giving me some money so I could go on a special visit to Lourdes. I went to Lourdes because my mother asked me to thank Our Lady for the gift of healing she received during her visit there in 1985.
With God’s grace, I found myself many times at the Grotto of Massabielle from then on. There at the foot of the Grotto, I renewed my priestly vows and commitments. I have told Our Lady: “Help me, O Mother, that I may give myself completely to God, totally to God, for His greater glory and the greater service of the Church.”
It was days after my first visit to Lourdes that I received the notice that I would be sent to study in Rome. In deep gratitude to God and to Our Lady, I did my Licentiate Thesis on “Mary in the Life of the Priest according to the Magisterium of Pope John Paul II.” My father used to tell me that the first devotion he had to our Blessed Mother was to Our Lady of Lourdes. He once confided to me that he and my mother, when they were still dating, saw the movie “The Song of Bernadette” and were inspired by it.
Here I am now, the youngest of their seven children, a priest of her Son under Our Lady of Lourdes’ maternal protection.
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