Lourdes-Global Hub of Faith

Posted November 3, 2008

   There’s a story about a little old Irish lady returning from a pilgrimage of the shrines of Europe, who was questioned by the customs agent regarding a bottle in her luggage. She protested that it was Lourdes water from the famous shrine where she had witnessed several miracles” When the skeptical customs agent smelled the bottle’s contents, he informed her that it was contraband whiskey. “Glory be to God!” exclaimed the little lady! “Another miracle!”

   It isn’t hard to expose a counterfeit faith. But at venues like Lourdes where miracles really do happen, faith is more often transformed and uplifted than exposed as sham. Of all its many acclaimed miracles its greatest miracle might well be the widespread flourishing of faith, as countless tourists with merely sightseers’ curiosity find themselves absorbing the spiritual mindset of devout pilgrims. Lourdes entertains an average of 6 million visitors each year- 8 million expected this jubilee year, the 150th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette. Hardly any visitors remain untouched by the vibrant faith that permeates the very atmosphere of this remarkable heaven-chosen site. Like the hub of a cartwheel toward which all spokes converge and from which they radiate, Lourdes is the global focal point of many aspects of faith.

   Bernadette responded to the many skeptics who doubted her apparitions:

   “I am here to tell you what happened, not to make you believe.” But by God’s grace her compelling testimony aroused in them a faith that blossomed and spread far afield like wild roses. That phenomenon continues even to this day 

   For instance, many pilgrims come to Lourdes with an inferior type of faith called the “faith of urgency” (“Please, please, please, help me, Lord!”), and find their faith burgeoning into a “faith of expectancy” (“Of course you will help me, Lord!”). This expectant faith, a charismatic gift granted by the Holy Spirit, cannot be contrived by human effort, but only petitioned. (The reason for this I explain in my book, Faith, the Key to the Heart of God.) Most significantly for Lourdes devotees, Paul in 1 Cor. 12:9 links this faith charism with the related charisms of healing and miracle-working. This is the kind of expectant faith described in Hebrews 11: 1, and especially in James 5: 15: “Prayer offered in faith will heal the sick.” Jesus speaks of this expectant faith in Mark 11 :24: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”

   Another “spoke” radiating from this “hub of faith” is the hallmark of Lourdes-namely, the virtue of faith-also called doctrinal faith. This kind of faith is reflected in the many penitents making life-changing confessions, and those eagerly receiving the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

   Even more pivotal in this Mecca of belief is the doctrinal faith that experiences Jesus’ Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. The fervent Mass attendance and countless devout Communions, as well as the Eucharistic Benediction and procession with the Host-bearing monstrance used to bless the sick, all contribute to an incandescent flow of Christ-focused love. Jesus’ mother, who “magnifies the Lord” and who persuaded him to work his first public miracle at Cana, delights in the hidden miracles of grace and soul-healing that inundate her spiritual children as they adore her Divine Son in his Eucharistic Presence. A highlight in my own priesthood recently was the Easter Sunday Mass that I was privileged to celebrate at the apparition site itself.

   On the centennial of Lourdes in 1958-half a century ago-while I was preaching at the apparition site, I hurried to finish my sermon when I noticed a group of pilgrims waiting for their cardinal chaplain to celebrate Mass at that altar. Their shepherd was Cardinal Roncali, later elected as Pope John XXIII.

   One very apparent dimension of doctrinal faith profluent at Lourdes is warm and loving devotion to Mary, especially under the title of her Immaculate Conception. That term attests that by exclusive privilege she was conceived without original sin and remained free of all personal sin also. She waited until the 16th apparition to identify herself under that title, significantly announcing her own sin-free conception on the anniversary of her divine Son’s sin-free conception-the feast of the annunciation, March 25. Mary’s Immaculate Conception-in the womb of her mother, St. Anne-had been an ancient Church teaching, but proclaimed ecclesiastically as dogma only four years prior to the Lourdes apparitions; it needed a devotional promulgation among God’s people. The Lourdes event provided an ideal stage for such a devotional faith response,

   Why did Mary say, “I am the Immaculate Conception” rather than “I have the privilege of the Immaculate Conception”? She chose to use a metonym or synecdoche, that is, a figure of speech by which a noun symbolizes a person or something else; thus, the phrase “tribute to the crown” means “tribute to the king.” If reported as a metonym from a slow-witted and unconversant child like Bernadette, who would never employ a sophisticated figure of speech like a metonym, the doctrinal revelation in that apparition would be more believable. The newly proclaimed dogma would thus be less easily refuted by skeptics.

   The faith ambience of Lourdes filters down from the sacraments to the sacramentals. Thus, the many candles blessed for the spectacular candlelight processions are sacramental symbols of the light of faith, referred to even in the candle blessing prayer itself. The world-renowned Lourdes water! now established as a sacramental and flowing at 30,000 gallons per day, began as a tiny trickle of mud scratched by Bernadette to a miraculous flow of water, the symbol of life. She often insisted to inquirers that the water had no healing power in itself; it is healing-effective only when used with the prayer of faith. This decimated the false faith of those infected with “sacramental superstition.”

   On the first pilgrimage that I shepherded to Lourdes, one lady suffered crippling pain from phlebitis in her legs. A nurse in our group prayed with deep faith at the apparition site and then sneaked up behind this lady and splashed Lourdes water on her legs. Astonishingly, she was cured totally and instantly! That triggered a resurgence of faith in our entire group-and even more cures.

   Pope Benedict, on his recent jubilee visit to Lourdes, recalled his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose intense Marian devotion was epitomized in his Marian coat of arms motto: Totus Tuus (All Yours). He affirmed that this reflected a life completely oriented to Christ through Mary, implying the Vatican II statement that all authentic Marian devotion is Christocentric. He said, “Whoever opens his heart to Mary is actually accepted by her and becomes her own.” This, he said, eventuates in a truly spiritual and mystical experience.

   It was that theme that I tried to present in my book, Scriptural Basis for Marian Devotion. Permit me to close by quoting a passage from that treatise:

   Any Marian devotee, trying to explain to a non-devotee the awesome interior love surges or even the exterior phenomena experienced at a Marian shrine, would usually get a disappointing response of calloused indifference. A deep and abiding awareness of Mary as our spiritual Mother is one of the most beautiful, comforting and spiritually uplifting insights granted by the Holy Spirit-undoubtedly part of that “knowledge, spiritual wisdom and understanding” that Paul prayed would be granted to the Colossians (Col. 1 :9) and to the Ephesians (Eph 5:17). As stated in Lumen Gentium in Vatican II, all authentic Marian devotion is ultimately Christocentric; hence all Marian devotees will have a much richer devotion to Jesus because of it.

   One of the greatest rewards of filial Marian devotion this side of heaven is the incalculable joy engendered by deep devotion and love toward Mary. There is a joy in honoring God, the Divine Artist, by admiring Mary, his creatural masterpiece; the joy of being, in some way, another Jesus for Mary; the ineffable joy of feeling constantly secure and at peace because of reliance on her fathomless protective love; the joy of experiencing success in all our work done for God’s glory, as she teaches us to “Make our paths straight .. and give health to the body” (Prov. 3:6-8); the joy of making her known, loved and served; the joy of seeing her honoring God who “has done mighty things for her” and to see herself honored by humans of “all generations that will call her blessed”; the joy of growing in love of Jesus under her tutelage; the joy of bringing happiness to Jesus by honoring Mary, and happiness to Mary by honoring Jesus. The saintly Marianist Brother Leonard once wrote: “To give Jesus the delight and joy of loving Mary through me and in me, and to give Mary the Joy of seeing her Son live in me-what a glorious thought!” Can it be true to say that those lacking a fervent devotion to Mary are missing something very rich in their spiritual life? The question almost answers itself. May God be praised for creating Mary, his masterpiece! +++

John H. Hampsch, C.M.F.