Pilgrims’ Progress?

March 2-8, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 8
Pilgrims’ Progress?
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Connie Cissell
Walking in the Footsteps of St. Bernadette

Editor’s note: This story is unusual for The SUN in that it is a first-person account of a personal pilgrimage taken over the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. 11.

The seeds of the pilgrimage I made recently with my daughter, Catie, who is 15 and my son, Danny, who is 11, were planted last summer when I met and interviewed Marlene Watkins, the director of a remarkable organization with its homebase in our diocese. Watkins is the leader and the engine behind the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers — a long name with a tall order. As Watkins explained it, there are hundreds of volunteers who travel to Lourdes, France for a week each year to help the sick and disabled who make the pilgrimage to the healing waters of the baths at Lourdes. But, there was no official U.S. presence at Lourdes until now. From offices in Syracuse, Watkins and her staff arrange pilgrimages for people all over the country. Her goal is to establish a U.S. presence at Lourdes and judging from my experience there, she’s already successful.

Watkins has been to Lourdes more than 20 times since she founded the volunteer organization back in 2002. You could say she’s enthusiastic about her work; actually you could say she never stops working. Watkins’ motivation is simple: she wants to bring the story of Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes to everyone. If she hasn’t gotten to you yet, don’t worry, she will. If you can’t travel to Lourdes, Watkins will bring Lourdes to your parish or to your hospital room or to your living room. When we parted company in Paris last week, she was traveling to Germany to visit wounded U.S. soldiers in the military hospital there. Watkins and some helpers were bringing a virtual pilgrimage to the troops via computer technology and actual bottles of Lourdes water recently filled from the spigots by the grotto.

Marlene likes to quote a priest who works at Lourdes, Father DeGuay. He said, “If you get introduced to Bernadette, she will bring you to Our Lady.” Before we left for Lourdes I tried to study St. Bernadette so that I would have some understanding of her life. This is what I learned: She was born the eldest of six children of which four initially survived. She was extremely poor, from the poorest family in Lourdes. Her family made up in love what they lacked in money. Bernadette could not read or write when Mary appeared to her in 1858 when she was 14 years old. After the 18th apparition at the grotto in Lourdes, Mary did not appear to Bernadette again. During one of these apparitions, Mary asked Bernadette to dig at the earth in a particular spot at the grotto and bathe there. Bernadette looked absolutely ridiculous to outsiders when she dug in the mud and smeared it all over herself. Any hopes she had of coming across as sane to the townspeople who didn’t want to believe that a poor, ignorant girl was being visited by the Blessed Mother were nil.

By the next day, there was a clear spring coming up from the ground on the spot where Bernadette dug. Some people, namely her family and close friends, believed what was happening at the grotto; many others didn’t believe. Bernadette was besieged by inquiries about what happened to her, what the Blessed Mother said, what made her “special” etc. etc. She chose to live out the rest of her life after the apparitions with the Sisters of Notre Dame at Nevers. There she could live a somewhat quiet life. She died at age 35 always grateful for her experience and for the suffering she endured because Our Lady promised her happiness not in this life, but in the next. Her body was exhumed three separate times during the canonization process and all three times it was incorrupt. She became St. Bernadette in 1933. Her body now rests at the convent in Nevers and her reliquary is visited by millions of pilgrims on a regular basis. Three of her ribs are in the reliquary in the crypt at Lourdes.

The story of Bernadette is a remarkable one. Why would Our Lady appear to such an insignificant, small girl with no education or means? Maybe because of Bernadette’s innocence or her obedience. Maybe so that the rest of the world would always know that the Blessed Mother is there for each and every one of us. Besides wondering if I was spiritually prepared for a pilgrimage, I was worried about first-time plane trips for my two children. I was concerned about the practicalities of the trip, mostly because my son has autism. Would Danny be able to tolerate the long plane rides? Would I be able to tolerate Danny on the long plane rides? Would Cate be able to tolerate either of us on the long plane rides? Danny normally sits still only when a favorite meal is served. I could picture him wandering around some vast dining room trying to find a good-looking piece of cake to swipe from someone’s plate. I pictured Cate’s eyes rolling back in her head as I went tromping off to retrieve him. Let’s just say I was a little apprehensive. And we wouldn’t be the only people on this pilgrimage. There would be about 40 other people along with us.

I was afraid all the other pilgrims were 10 steps ahead of me on the “spiritual journey” we’re all supposed to be making. Surely if they were spending their hard-earned money and taking vacation time to make this trip, they must be pretty serious Catholics. What I didn’t realize is that pretty serious Catholics can also laugh quite a bit. I wondered how my daughter would react when people brought out their rosary beads while we waited in lines.

Here is some advice for those considering a pilgrimage: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Any and every fear I had was unfounded. It seems what little faith I had was all handed over to the Blessed Mother who then managed the trip quite nicely for us. There were no scenes on the planes. There were no scenes in the dining halls. There wasn’t even any eye-rolling.

The other pilgrims turned out to be some of the most faith-filled people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. There was David and Mary Wilton from Liverpool, Sister Anne Marie Gill from Austria via Ohio, Sonya O’Connor and her little boy, Adrien from Florida and a group from Binghamton as well. A group from Chicago called themselves “The 12 Apostles” because they numbered a dozen. These pilgrims came from all over the U.S. but they all had a common devotion to the Blessed Mother.

I’ve had my own devotion to the Blessed Mother for the past several years — ever since I realized that she IS my mother — the one I can turn to no matter what I’m facing. I ask for her guidance, her blessing and her wisdom almost daily. The bronze statue of Mary at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse has a special place in my heart. I can walk in and talk to Mary there any time I like. And I often do. I’ve prayed for employment for friends there, for a baby for a friend who was (but isn’t anymore) childless, for the health of dear friends and family and for many other special favors. She never turns a deaf ear to my requests. I often think of Our Lady as the patroness of the most desperate! All I know is that she hears the cry of her children. There are few things that I am absolutely sure of, but Our Lady’s place in my life is constant. That was the reason I wanted to go to Lourdes.

I wanted to stand where Bernadette stood. I wanted to look up into that niche in the rock where she saw Our Lady. I wanted to feel that cool water where so many millions had bathed seeking a cure and I wanted to see the candles burning and the church that was built on the rock. We arrived at Lourdes around noontime after flying all night. Marlene said it would be best not to lie down but to stay awake as if we were in the present time zone in France. I laid down of course and regretted it later as we all met for dinner that evening.

To wake ourselves up and because we were curious, after dinner that first night Cate, Danny and I headed to the gates of the sanctuary which was a short walk from our hotel. It was dark and chilly outside as we approached the grotto. It is really huge. It looks like a big cave and in a little hole to the right and above the big cave and inside the niche was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes just as she looked to Bernadette. She appeared to Bernadette as the same size as the 14-year-old girl and spoke to her in the dialect of Bernadette’s locale. Words cannot describe what I felt when I first saw the grotto and the statue. My first inclination was to cry. I’m not sure why I was crying but I know I felt completely overwhelmed with emotion. My daughter was affected the same way. It is a sight that I wish everyone could see (and feel). It was difficult to walk away.

That experience really set the tone for the rest of the pilgrimage for us. We felt as if we were in the presence of someone, something that was truly awesome. Father Jeffrey Keefe, OFM Conv., from the Franciscan community in Syracuse traveled on the pilgrimage too. He serves as the spiritual director of the North American Volunteers. He was busy on the trip hearing confessions and celebrating Masses, but he was always available to talk about Bernadette or Lourdes. Father Keefe concelebrated Mass with 500 fellow clergy in the underground basilica at Lourdes. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people attended the Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. 11. That experience made the priest shortage in the U.S. seem far-fetched.

“When you are in the religion business, it can be tough,” Father Jeffrey said smiling during the pilgrimage. “This is an amazing place of faith and I hope it is a very moving experience for you.” We were all looking forward to the baths at Lourdes. Some of us were anxious about how the experience played out — what would we be wearing or not wearing, is the water freezing, would we have a revelation of some kind after we bathed in the Lourdes water?

There are separate baths for men and women and the lines to get into the “piscines,” or baths, were very long. While Cate and I stood in the line for women, we heard the rosary prayed in Italian and French. It was recited the entire time we waited. My daughter was able to go before me because Sister Anne Marie went to the doctor who was traveling with us and who works at Lourdes during the pilgrimages, Dr. Rachel Lee, and asked if Cate could go ahead of the others due to a chronic cough she had been having. I was a little disappointed because I had wanted to be with her or at least near her when she experienced the bath.

As it happened, I waited with Mary Wilton who was dealing with her own feelings about her first visit to the baths. Later she would say that nothing she expected to happen on the pilgrimage happened and all the things that did happen were unexpected. Mary and her husband, David, help with the Lourdes volunteers; David as an accountant and Mary as a nurse. They have nine children and the trip to Lourdes was the first time they had traveled together for more than a few days. It finally came time for my own bath. I was nervous but tried to focus on my intentions and prayers to St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes. It really happened quickly. I went into the cubicle to prepare and the person who was helping in that particular bath happened to be Marlene! I was thrilled to be with someone I was comfortable with. After I was wrapped in a sheet and pointed in the direction of the bath, more women were there to lead me into the water. Before doing so, however, I was wrapped in another sheet, this time a cold, wet sheet that I could wear into the bath. The emotions and feelings that welled up inside me as I stepped into the cold, clear water were intense. I just tried to pray and stay focused on my intention the whole time. When it was all over and I was walking back to the hotel, all I could think of was that I felt incredibly happy. I felt peaceful and content and extraordinarily blessed. And that feeling remained with me the rest of the pilgrimage.

The candlelight processions to the steps of the basilicas — the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception which is the upper basilica and the Rosary Basilica which is the lower level basilica — were also awesome. When looking at the great cliff of the grotto, we could see that the basilicas were literally built on top of the site of the apparitions. The beautiful churches rise up out of the rock. Depending upon the events of the day, there were anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 people at the procession. All languages are spoken and on the feast night there was an international choir that performed outside the basilica. My daughter was taken in by the Irish singers and welcomed into the group. There weren’t many redheads at Lourdes.

The baths, the grotto, the processions and finally the tour of Bernadette’s birthplace were all highlights of the pilgrimage. The day before departure we “walked in Bernadette’s footsteps,” meaning that we saw the room she was born in, we saw her tiny shoes, we saw her needlework and we saw the crucifix she held when she died.

The pilgrimage experience was not entirely religious in that we also tried crepes with Nutella, cappuccino and croissants. But I can say that whether we were dining or praying, the feeling that permeated the pilgrimage was one of love for each other, for Bernadette’s example and for Our Lady.

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