Almost the first thing I did in Lourdes was to walk, head first, into the plate glass door of the gift shop in the lobby of our hotel. The door had been cleaned so thoroughly that it was invisible, at least to me. I bounced back with a little cry. Nice women assistants rallied around. One of them slapped a dressing on my forehead and said it would stop a bruise forming.
In your dreams, I thought. Yet it worked: I didn’t get a bruise. It was the closest I came to a miracle in Lourdes.
No sneer here, by the way. After all, the odds are several million to one against a miracle. The Church has recognised only 70 miracles out of the thousands that have been claimed for Lourdes in the 160 years since Our Lady appeared to the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous at a refuse dump in a grotto — now the Grotto – just outside town. The Church is rightly sceptical in its approach to miracles.
Perhaps tiredness explains (if it does not excuse) my accident with the door. On the morning of our departure for Lourdes we had risen at 3.45 to be at Heathrow for a 7.40 flight to Toulouse. We were members of a 40-strong party of pilgrims from St Bede’s, Clapham Park. We were in the care of two spiritual guardians – Fr Przemysław Zgórecki, a very agreeable young Polish priest who is an assistant to Fr Christopher Basden, parish priest at St Bede’s, and Mgr Leo White, a gentle priest of 89 who helps in the parish.
The pilgrimage was organised by the remarkable Maria Chang. She is the Gift Aid co-ordinator for the parish and represents the Latin Mass community on the parish council. Thanks to her gentle shepherding all went smoothly.
We were a very jolly bunch – especially the beautiful baby girl of 18 months – but perhaps not especially lucky. In any case, I was not the only one to have an accident. One woman fainted during open-air Stations of the Cross. Another broke her arm when she slipped on the rain-slicked pavement outside our hotel.
I do not much care for Marian piety. Yet I liked Lourdes a lot, and found just about everything there, even the large quantities of cheese, consoling. In other words, I was not terribly distressed by the gaudy religious souvenir shops. What should one expect? Catholicism is hierarchical, but it is also the religion of the people. Six million pilgrims visit Lourdes every year, and that many Catholics equals an awful lot of bad taste, not to say loose thinking. We can’t all be Thomas Aquinas or even Jacob Rees-Mogg. The thing that struck me most about the souvenir shops, however, was not the devotional kitsch but the large collections of knives on prominent display. Some of them looked lethal, though I suppose they are used for skinning rabbits and doing man stuff at campsites in the Pyrenees. If I’d been caught with one returning through Heathrow I might have been stopped and closely questioned.
Instead of a knife, I bought a small wooden statue of St Anthony and a little bottle for holding Lourdes holy water. The bottle caused a momentary glitch when I was going through security at Toulouse airport on my way home. But it was found not to be dangerous and I was allowed to proceed.
The Grotto itself is sublimely peaceful. I’d rather like to die there, with a priest with a stole on one side of my wheelchair and a nurse with painkillers on the other.
There is no perfectly convincing answer to the problem of pain, and perhaps it is foolish to seek one. But at Lourdes you can see how God brings good from evil. The sick people and their carers who mass in front of the Grotto are alive with joy. The joy is in their smiles, their dignity, their good humour, their innocence, their courage and their patience. Their love, in short. Perhaps the answer to the problem of pain is love.
At Lourdes 160 years ago Our Lady called for penance, though not (as we read in the guidebooks) of the guilt-trip variety. Not five minutes from the basilica is the Chapel of Reconciliation, a large church where Confessions in many languages are heard throughout the day. Members of our group recommended the chapel to me after I’d mentioned it at breakfast. They said that among the English-speaking confessors, Fr Angel was especially kind and encouraging. So I went to the Chapel of Reconciliation, and was astonished to discover that there actually was a Fr Angel. My fellow pilgrims had not been amusing themselves at my expense.
When my turn came, however, Fr Angel was busy with a client, so I went to another priest. We sat opposite one another across a table. I liked it, and felt light, happy and confident when I left. It had certainly not been a guilt trip.
Finally, good news for “restorationists” everywhere: the traditional Latin Mass is said daily in Lourdes by priests of the SSPX and the FSSP.