I had the privilege and gift to co-lead a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Fatima a few years ago in honor of the 100th anniversary of the apparitions in Fatima. In planning the pilgrimage to Fatima, we also decided to add on Our Lady of Pilar and Lourdes, since, geographically, they are not that far away. It would be a truly Marian pilgrimage.
Lourdes was the first part of our pilgrimage, and I had been there once before when I was in college. Frankly, I was holding out for Fatima. I was content to revel in the enthusiasm of the other pilgrims. Watching their joy and excitement was enough for me. Not that I didn’t think Mary would or could give me grace... I just wasn’t convinced she should. I had been there before. I wasn’t suffering like so many who were making their way to Lourdes. I was leading the group, so I thought I should already have it together or that I was somehow exempt from the healing graces that flow through Lourdes. I was happy to be there, but I thought if Our Lady was going to give special graces, she should give them to the ones I was with: the ones who had never been there or seemingly needed grace more than me, as if there was not enough to go around.
Mary Shows Herself as Mother
On our first night, a small group of us decided to go to the grotto where Our Lady had appeared to Bernadette. Spirits were high, the lights over the Gave River were beautiful, and the city was relatively quiet compared to the Catholic Disneyland-feel of the town during daytime hours.
Peace settled over us as we walked through the square while small groups of pilgrims wandered about at the late hour. We stopped for a picture in front of a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, a picture that would later be the image of our trip. The statue itself is completely white. But in this particular picture Our Lady was wearing her blue belt and gold roses on her shoes. A small crowd gathered in attempts to replicate the picture on their own cameras, but to no avail.
To our particular group it was as if Our Lady was saying, “I am here.”
Spirits even higher, we walked from there to the grotto itself. This is where Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette and asked her to pray the Rosary. This is where I promptly burst into tears. Tears I was not prepared for, had not anticipated, and definitely did not want to be crying in front of the tour company leader, our pastor, and friends.
These were ugly-cry tears, seemingly out of nowhere. However, they were tears of peace, tears of healing. As I stood there beneath the little outcropping where Our Lady had appeared, she gently reminded me of how much she had done in my life since I had stood there as a 20-year-old college student.
It was as if she was saying to me, “I am here, I am close.”
The next day, we had Mass in a small chapel adjacent to the main Church. It is so tiny you would miss it walking by, but it is the oldest chapel at the shrine. Saint Bernadette’s father even helped build it.
I was particularly excited about it because I had just finished a book about Leonie, one of Saint Therese of Liseux’s older sisters. She had come to Lourdes with the two eldest Martin sisters and her mother, Saint Zelie, to pray that Saint Zelie would be healed of breast cancer. While that particular prayer for Zelie was not answered in the way her daughters’ desired, Saint Zelie’s prayer was. She poured Lourdes water on Leonie and prayed that she might become a saint. Leonie had many mental health struggles throughout her life, but her mother’s prayer at Lourdes was answered, and Leonie's cause for canonization is open.
As I prepared for Mass, I imagined Saint Zelie, Leonie, Marie, and Pauline having Mass in this same chapel. That is what I pondered throughout that Mass.
Always Answered Prayers
The walls of the chapel were covered, floor to ceiling, with ex voto plaques: thank you’s for prayers answered. Many of the plaques in this particular chapel date to just after the apparitions, when Saint Bernadette would have still been alive. Countless prayers answered for countless pilgrims in the almost 170 years since the apparitions. Our Lady was showing me her care for each one of her children and her continual prayer for us. Mostly, she was showing me her tender, motherly heart that is only expansive, never limiting.
She spoke to my heart, “I am here, I am close, I am yours.”
I had placed limits on our Mother’s love and care. I had limited Our Lady to only giving me a gift at one place, and I figured it would be Fatima. I didn’t think I had anything worth healing at Lourdes (not that I didn’t need healing, but that those things weren’t worth Our Lady’s time or attention). I had anticipated the countless petitions she was hearing there would mean mine would go uncounted.
Instead, Our Lady decided to heal my heart in a way I didn’t even recognize needed healing.
That little chapel, with countless prayers answered. The lines for the baths, with hundreds of pilgrims. The countless candles marking prayer requests. Instead of feeling small or unseen, I visited a tender Mother who cares about every detail of our hearts. She healed the deepest desires that I didn’t ask for, but she knew I wanted. She saw me.
Have you ever been to Lourdes? What was your experience like?