By Paul De Marco
I can still vividly remember standing at the grotto at Massabielle for the 6am outdoor mass on a chilly November morning back in 1984.
I’d arrived in Lourdes the day before, and had checked into a small bed and breakfast before going for a leisurely stroll through the town.
As with most people who visit Lourdes, I was initially put off by the huge number of shops selling holy water and all manner of little Marian artefacts.
After all, shopping wasn’t the purpose of my visit as I was just a curious young Catholic wanting to know more about Lourdes and the apparitions that happened there.
But any concerns over the commercialisation of Lourdes evaporated as I gazed up at the wooden crutches of people who’d been cured of their disabilities which were hanging above the grotto during that mass.
At that moment, what I’d read had happened at Lourdes in 1858 suddenly became very real indeed.
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Someone once told me that everyone who visits Lourdes has been called there for a reason and it took me 32 years to realise the truth in that comment when I felt compelled to write a book on the subject.
So what is the appeal of Lourdes that has attracted over 200 million visitors since the time of the Apparitions?
Fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous claimed that a beautiful lady had appeared to her at a grotto in the rock face named Massabielle on 11th February, 1858.
Despite the disbelief of the locals and the hostility shown her by several officials and priests in the town, the uneducated Bernadette continued to visit the grotto where she would fall to her knees and pray the rosary in a state of ecstasy.
In total there were 18 apparitions between February and July of that year, but it was at the ninth apparition on 25 February that a miracle was worked for all the world to see.
Bernadette said that the lady had asked her to scratch at a certain point on the ground and water began emerging from that very spot, which soon developed into a spring.
Within days, there were reports of miraculous healings of people who had drunk the water from this spring or who had applied the water to their bodies.
At the 16th apparition on 25 March, Bernadette was given a revelation which stunned the world and the Catholic Church when the lady announced, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette, who was at that stage virtually illiterate, told a priest named Father Peyramale what the lady had said to her.
The priest was stunned and visibly shaken by this shattering news as he realised that it was impossible for Bernadette to have made this story up.
A Commission was set up by Monsignor Laurence, the Bishop of Tarbes to rigorously investigate the events at the grotto and all the claims of miraculous healings.
Three years later, on 18 January 1862, Bishop Laurence announced that the faithful were justified in believing with certainty that the Virgin Mary had indeed appeared to Bernadette.
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Doctor Vergez, who was one of the senior doctors on the medical panel that investigated the healings for the Commission, announced: ‘Such phenomena are beyond the comprehension of the human mind.’
Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity at their convent in Nevers where she cared for the sick in the hospice, but she died at the age of just 35 on 16 April 1879.
She was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1923, and her remains were exhumed on three occasions.
On the last exhumation, 46 years after her death, Doctor Comte was stunned to discover that her body was completely incorrupt and undecayed, including her internal organs such as her liver.
He stated that ‘this was not a natural phenomenon.’ Bernadette’s body was then placed in a crystal coffin, which went on display in 1925 in St Joseph’s Chapel in the grounds of the Convent in Nevers. Since 1858, an estimated 200 million pilgrims have visited Lourdes. There have been around 7,000 claims of miraculous cures, of which 70 have been recognised by the Church after the most rigorous investigation.
My book, Lourdes 2019, explains the timeless message that Our Lady gave at Lourdes, and it reveals the strong link with the apparitions at Fatima 59 years later.
Mary, The Immaculate Conception, played a unique and essential role in Jesus becoming incarnate in our world and she continues to play a vital role in helping souls along the path to God’s love and to eternal life.
The message of Lourdes doesn’t belong in our history books but in our hearts.
Bernadette once said, “Yes, dear Mother, you have come down to the earth to appear to a weak child. You, Queen of heaven and earth, have chosen what was the most humble according to the world.”
The town of Lourdes is in a picturesque setting, nestling in the magnificent Pyrenees, and a visit will always be a memorable experience.
There’s so much to see at Lourdes, such as the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which was built above the original little chapel at the grotto, with the chapel becoming the crypt for the basilica.
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Then there’s the 1500-seat Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, which was built below and in front of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
But the largest of the three basilicas is the Basilica of Saint Pius X (commonly known as the Underground Basilica), which opened in 1958 and can accommodate 25,000.
The last church to be built was the Church of Saint Bernadette, which opened in 1988.
It was constructed on the other side of the River Gave, at the exact spot where Bernadette knelt down in prayer during the 18th and final apparition.
I found that visiting Lourdes enriched my faith, and it has stayed in my heart ever since that winter’s day way back in 1984. I’d highly recommend a visit there.
Paul De Marco is the author of Lourdes 2019