While so many know the background of Lourdes and will know even more after reading the story in our feature series today, we wanted to focus in this column on Lourdes today. Let's face it. In 1998 Saint Bernadette Soubirous, the humble peasant visionary whose body remains incorrupt, would hardly recognize the village or the grotto where she had first seen Our Lady. Today, 27,000 gallons of water are generated from the spring which started when Bernadette drank "mud." Every day 350,000 people pass by the grotto. Five thousand healings have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes over the years, although Holy Mother Church officially recognizes only 64 of them. The chapel the Blessed Mother instructed Bernadette to have built, is now actually four chapels. The latest, the Church of St. Pius X, holds as many as 20,000 people and is built beneath the ground - the largest underground church in the world. Incidentally, it was Pope Saint Pius X who decreed in 1907 that the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes would be celebrated every February 11th for the universal Church. It had first been established as a local feast in Southern France in 1891 with the approval of Pope Leo XIII. It was during his regime that the Church of Notre Dame and the Church of the Rosary were finished, built into the rock of Massabiele, very near the grotto. But the only chapel Bernadette ever saw was the first, built into the rock. Even in her own lifetime, this small chapel could not contain the many pilgrims who came to pay homage to the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, who graciously invited an uneducated poor girl to come and pray with her, that Our Lady might intercede for all who would believe!
Today Lourdes is one of the most loved apparition sites in the world. Over six million people make pilgrimages to this holy place annually. There are medical centers and a hospital there which staffs a worldwide organization of professionals volunteering their time and expertise to serve as stretcher-bearers and wheelchair attendants so that the sick, crippled, handicapped and infirm can access the healing waters originating from the miraculous spring. There have been thousand of physical cures there and countless spiritual cures that can never be accounted for until we all reach Heaven. Here on earth the story of Bernadette has been captured in the novel "Bernadette" by Franz Werfel and beautifully depicted in the Hollywood production "Song of Bernadette". Here in the United States there are many shrines to Our Lady of Lourdes, the most authentic replicas of the famous grotto is on the campus of the University of Notre Dame and at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine in Belleville, Illinois where the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, devoted to the Immaculate Conception, conduct a candlelight Rosary nightly during the summers. There are also Lourdes Shrines in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Litchfield, Connecticutt; and San Antonio, Texas.
At the original shrine there is a daily candlelight procession where thousands upon thousands from all over the world join in offering their prayers for the intentions of the Blessed Mother. Truly Lourdes has played a vital role in this modern Age of Marian Apparitions - not necessarily for the conversion messages imparted as Our Lady conveyed at La Salette, Fatima and even today at Medjugorje and other ongoing apparitions - but more for the confirmation of Church Doctrine - her Divine Son's True Church on earth and the miraculous healing power of God through the waters from the spring near the Grotto. Pope John Paul II has made more than one pilgrimage to Lourdes, so totally devoted to Our Lady.
The Betania apparitions in Venezuela mirror Lourdes with the emphasis on Reconciliation. We cannot be pure and worthy of God's graces and truly in accord with the Immaculate Conception if we are not reconciled with God and our neighbor. That is paramount. So today, still two weeks from the day when Lent begins, let us all take the opportunity on this feast day to reconcile our wills to His Will and prepare now to be fully reconciled in our hearts and in our deeds first with Him and then with our brothers and sisters. If we can do this, we will be better prepared to garner the graces from a Lent that will be truly pivotal in a year which will be just as pivotal in the history of mankind. We live in a time where hearts are hardened. From the healing waters of Lourdes to the healing flow of Mary's tears let us hope and pray mankind's heart will be softened.