By Father Jeffrey Keefe, OFM, Conv/ SUN contributing writer
Pilgrims to Lourdes Find Healing of Body, Mind and Spirit
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality, North American Volunteers, with headquarters in Syracuse, sponsored its second special pilgrimage for medical professionals at the end of June. A group of physician and nurse volunteers from various parts of the country journeyed to Our Lady’s shrine in Southern France to assist the sick pilgrims.
In 1858 a “beautiful lady” appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous and asked “if you would be so kind” as to come to the site 15 times. During the apparitions the Lady identified herself, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” She asked that a church be built there, that processions take place, that people wash themselves in the spring which she directed Bernadette to scratch to the surface, and urged people to prayer and penance in reparation for sin. Despite initial opposition from her pastor, later her champion, and from the civil authorities, all these requests have been fulfilled in marvelous degree. The believing pilgrim cannot help but be moved by the demonstrations of faith, the plight of the sick, and the dedicated, joyful, patient service of the Lourdes’ volunteers.
This summer everyone’s conversation — taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hotel personnel — centered on the forthcoming visit of the Holy Father. They were thrilled at his coming but concerned with how their little town, which manages 20,000 pilgrims a day during the summer high season, would cope with the million expected to converge on Lourdes for the pope’s own visit as a sick pilgrim on the feast of the Assumption. Hotels already were booked solid for a hundred miles around.
The American medical group had an hour-long meeting with Dr. Patrick Theillier M.D., chief of physicians who determine whether a cure is beyond medical explanation. He spoke in French. A 30-year veteran volunteer Irish nurse served as translator. Theillier reviewed the process for documenting a cure as miraculous by following the regulations for judging miraculous cures drawn up in 1727 by the cardinal who later became Pope Benedict XIV. The medical board sends the medical reports and its own decision to church authorities. The final determination is made by the bishop of the diocese where the cured person lives.
Theillier invited the visiting American doctors to join the International Medical Association of Lourdes, and included Father Jeffrey Keefe, spiritual advisor to the medical group, in his capacity as psychologist. If an illness is considered to have been psychologically induced its cure is not eligible for consideration as a miracle. Since the first accredited miracle in 1862 only 66 cures have been confirmed by church authority as miracles. There are 7,000 current claimants. The great miracle of Lourdes, however, is the inner peace and strength gained by countless pilgrims in moving toward acceptance of their plight in union with the sufferings of Jesus.
The medical men and women also came as pilgrims. They attended daily Mass and joined the evening candlelight processions led by the sick in wheel chairs and stretchers guided by Lourdes’ volunteers. They also bathed in the spring water of Lourdes, often after a two hour queue, and in addition, provided their services to the sick pilgrims. A U.S. pilgrim group of sick persons and their families joined the medical group. One pilgrim was a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy; another was a 17-year-old athlete whose injury in a basketball game revealed a cancerous tumor in his leg, later spreading to his lung and brain despite chemotherapy.
In a closing meeting of the group 13-year-old Robert said that he had “felt Mary’s grace come down on me.” A 17-year-old named Tom admitted that he “was not keen on going on a church trip with a bunch of old people” but the experience of the baths had brought him a more vital faith. Further, he urges parents to bring their kids to Lourdes. The pope surely is accustomed to the pageantry of Masses celebrated for vast congregations and the candlelight processions filling St Peter’s square. Yet he too must be bolstered by the demonstration of faith bonding persons of all nationalities and colors, and the gentle love shown to the sick and infirm pilgrims by the hospitallers from many countries. At one evening rosary procession the choir members were Chaldean Catholics, refugees from Iraq, now settled in Sweden. One hardly could find a more apt symbol of the universal Church.
One moving scene the Holy Father probably missed is the unloading and later the departure of the sick from long trains that glide into the Lourdes station, or the medical planes which land at the Lourdes airport. It is actually a gala affair with laughter and songs of welcome, carrying them off the trains or planes, and on departure, renewing this atmosphere with heartfelt goodbyes, cheers, and more songs. Among the hospitallers were some lively British teenaged boys who had been coming with their pastor for two or three years, camping in tents, tired from lifting the disabled, yet enthused with helping the sick in whatever capacity they could.
During that closing meeting of the combined medical and pilgrim groups a husband who had been goaded by his wife to come to Lourdes admitted that he had fought it, then, choked with emotion, described how helping the sick had helped him, and how happy he was with his roommate. Whereupon his roommate embraced and kissed him.
More information on Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality, North American Volunteers, is available at P.O. Box 3820, Syracuse N.Y. 13220. Call (315) 476-0026 or 1- 866-Lourdes. You can also visit their website: www.LourdesVolunteers.org.