Not long ago I bought on eBay a book I had heard of many years ago titled “This Place Called Lourdes,” written in 1957 by Sister Maureen Flynn OP, a Dominican Sister of Springfield, Ill. She was on the faculty of Sacred Heart Academy in Springfield and had taught my mother art when my mother was in high school and Sister Maureen was a young professed sister. I had studied art with her for one summer (when I was in junior high) when the Springfield Dominican Sisters had summer enrichment programs at their academy for the students of their grade schools in Springfield—which were many at that time. Sister was not only an artist but a pianist and a writer as well. During that summer of art lessons she spoke of Lourdes and this book that she had written as a result of her pilgrimage there.
As I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Knights and Dames of Malta this year, I remembered the book and, sure enough, found several copies on eBay. In her introduction to the book, Sister Maureen says, “Yes, everything about Lourdes is a wonder and a paradox. You would think that the public would be overwhelmed. Yet, as you will see, exactly the opposite is true. Perhaps the greatest paradox is this: at Lourdes, the massed and interwoven contradictions, the wonders heaped on wonders, seem to the pilgrim natural, easy and almost commonplace. The pilgrim responds with acceptance, with elation and finds both effortless!”
That certainly was my experience in Lourdes. This was the fourth time that I had been there, but this time, in many ways, it was a pilgrimage and journey of faith with so many people from around the world who were sick (some terminally), with those who were crippled, and with others seemingly without hope. Yes, a gathering of contradictions, to be sure. I was blessed to be with the Knights and Dames of Malta and saw firsthand, and was privileged to participate in, their care and love for the sick and suffering of Christ, who came to Lourdes to see the face of the Mother of Christ, and to him by his mother, the Immaculate Conception.
In Lourdes come together (a seeming serious of contradictions as Sister Maureen noted in her book) the presence of the Mother of God, Mary; the story of Bernadette, who at age 14 and sickly, from a poor family, became a vessel of grace, mercy and love of God for the world; pilgrims from every corner of the world—Catholic and other faith traditions; doctors, nurses, volunteers by the scores, skeptics and believers alike, rich and poor, shopkeepers and prelates, religious and priests, all side by side with no distinction. Amidst all of this is a great sense of peace and hope. Lourdes is not only a place of faith and pilgrimage but a great “equalizer” as well. There is no place quite like this—even St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, as much as I love that place as well.
I participated in ceremonies where we blessed the hands of the caregivers, washed the feet of the sick (called malades in French), heard confessions, made trips to the hospital, celebrated Masses large and small above and below ground, participated in processions in the sun and in the rain and even one day went into the baths. And, perhaps most importantly, we lived for a week as a community of faith from California and the West who accompanied those who were sick with great love and care and joy. I found a sense of peace that I had not experienced in a while, especially since the death of my father and all of the transitions associated with that, as any family knows. It is a blessing that as part of this group of pilgrims were also Father John Janze and Father John LeVecke of our diocese.
On the day that we had the outdoor procession with the sick, and the procession of the Blessed Sacrament among them, I couldn’t help but look out into the mass of humanity with so many illnesses and physical challenges, I couldn’t help but think that these folks would certainly be the folks that Pope Francis reminds us that are “on the margins” and need our care, attention, love and missionary spirit—but also are very much devalued and put at risk and endangered by such legal matters as Senate Bill 128, now in the California Legislature, which seeks to establish physician-assisted suicide here in California.
As I close this reflection, I would salute the Knights and Dames of Malta for their care for the infirm on this trip, but also for their care year around for the sick and the suffering. They organize every year our Mass for the World Day of the Sick. In closing, I would offer these words of a prayer of Saint John Paul II to Our Lady of Lourdes:
Holy Mary, woman of Faith, First of the disciples!
Virgin Mother of the Church, help us always to account for the hope that is in us, with trust in human goodness and the Father’s love.
Teach us to build up the world beginning from within; in the depths of silence and prayer, in the joy of fraternal love, in the unique fruitfulness of the Cross.
Holy Mary, Mother of believers, Our Lady of Lourdes,
Pray for us! Amen.