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Lourdes - A Centre of Pilgrimage for Roman Catholics

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The Shrine at Lourdes

Image source: Pixabay

Lourdes and Saint Bernadette (Marie-Bernarde Soubirous)

Lourdes is a town in southwest France at the foot of the Pyrenees. Until the middle of the 19th century it was of no great importance, but it has become a great centre of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics.

Marie-Bernarde Soubirous (usually called Bernadette) was the 14-year-old daughter of a poor miller of Lourdes. On February 11, 1858, she went to gather firewood outside the town. At the foot of a rocky hill called Massabielle she stopped because she heard a sound, and there, standing in a grotto (cave) in the rock, she beheld a lady who smiled at her. The lady seemed to be only 15 or 16 years old. She was of great beauty and was surrounded by light, and wore a white dress with a blue sash whose ends nearly reached the ground and a long white veil. Bernadette was sure the lady came from Heaven and knelt to say some prayers. The lady made the Sign of the Cross and seemed to join in the prayers.

Bernadette visited the grotto again and saw the vision of the lady 18 times altogether, although no one else saw anything. The lady made clear she was the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. She told Bernadette that she must do penance for herself first and then for others. When Bernadette scratched the ground where the lady told her, a spring began to flow and does to this day. Bemadette was told to ask the priest for a chapel to be built at the grotto, but he sent her away.

On Bernadette's later visits to the grotto, great crowds went with her, some of them merely out of curiosity and others to pray. The police feared disorder and tried to close the grotto, but in the end the Emperor Napoleon III said that people might go there if they wished.

There were a few cases of remarkable cures of sick people and cripples who bathed in the water spring or drank it, although it was said to be quite ordinary water. The bishop in the diocese in which Bernadette lived ordered an inquiry and after four years he decided the visions had been genuine and that the Mother of God had appeared to Bernadette.

Lourdes gradually became a place of pilgrimage, and not all the pilgrims were Roman Catholics. There is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto and the pilgrims pray there and attend services in the four churches near by. The largest church is a huge boat-shaped building of bare concrete, built underground and able to hold 20,000 people. Many thousands of sick pilgrims come to Lourdes and are bathed in the water from the spring. Every now and then (although very seldom) there is a cure that doctors cannot explain. The greatest miracle of Lourdes, however, is that so many people from all over the world should come there to pray. There are hundreds of hotels and boarding houses in Lourdes and on a hillside outside the city there are big dormitories and a dining hall for use by groups of poor pilgrims.

Bernadette became a nun and was happy in helping others, especially looking after the sick. She had much common sense, love of God and love of others and a strong sense of humour. Her health was very poor and she suffered terribly from asthma {an illnes that makes breathing difficult). She died in 1879 at the age of 35. In I933 she was canonized (declared to be a saint) by the Pope.

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