The relics of St Bernadette are to tour the churches of Britain next year, the bishops have announced.
A section of bone from her thigh is to be taken to the major cathedrals and churches of the dioceses of England, Scotland and Wales in autumn 2022.
It will give British Catholics the chance to make a personal pilgrimage to the French saint, to venerate her and to pray for her intercession.
It is hoped that the tour will be as successful as the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux to Britain in 2009, which attracted a quarter of a million people to queue up to pray at the side of the casket of the “Little Flower”.
The visit was announced by the bishops’ of England and Wales at a press conference following their annual November meeting in Leeds, the first in which they have met collectively in person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Canon Christopher Thomas, general secretary of the conference, said the Shrine of Lourdes in the French Pyrenees approached the English and Welsh bishops with the offer of the pilgrimage of the relics and the bishops accepted.
Canon Thomas, pictured, said: “It was a genuine offer made by the shrine in Lourdes.
“The bishops saw this as not only something that will remind us of the importance of pilgrimage in our lives and the importance of the place of Lourdes in the life of many Catholics and dioceses in this country, but it will remind us of the centrality of the lives of the saints because this always points us to that greater degree of virtue that we are called to in our living of the Catholic faith.”
He added: “I think pilgrimage is always about the personal intentions of those on the pilgrimage.
“People go on pilgrimage for all sorts of different reasons. It can be a pilgrimage about healing, it can be a pilgrimage of deepening faith.”
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said: “Many pilgrims have journeyed to Lourdes over the years to pray alongside St Bernadette – and now it seems Lourdes is coming to us by the visit of the relics.
“May the example and prayers of St Bernadette lead us in 2022 to renewed faith and love for the Holy Eucharist.”
St Bernadette, whose real name was Marie Bernarde Soubisrous, was an illiterate French girl who received apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the age of 14 years.
Between February 11 and July 16 of 1858 St Bernadette witnessed 18 apparitions of at a natural cavity in the rock face, or grotto, at Massabielle at the side of the River Gave in the village of Lourdes.
They involved a vision of a “small young lady”, dressed in white with a blue girdle and yellow roses on her feet, who imparted messages to St Bernadette, telling her that people must offer prayer and penance for their sins, and visit Lourdes on pilgrimage.
Bernadette was urged to ask the lady who she was. The reply, in the local dialect, was: “Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou (I am the Immaculate Conception).”
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – that Our Lady was conceived in a state of natural justice rather than with the stain Original Sin – had been defined as dogma by Pope Pius IX just four years earlier.
At first, people were sceptical and local clergy came under suspicion of putting words into the mouth of Bernadette. Her parents, teachers and priests later testified that they had never mentioned the phrase “Immaculate Conception” to her.
By March 4 the crowds accompanying her to the grotto had grown to about 200,000 people. The Lady told her to build a chapel at the site of the spring, to which pilgrims could come in procession, and wash in, and drink from.
This opened in 1862 and by 1870 Lourdes was the most visited pilgrimage destination in Europe, thanks largely to the spread of the railway. The Lady had not promised cures for the sick but pilgrims began to bring their sick with them.
After the apparitions ceased, Bernadette boarded with the Sisters of Charity at a hospice for five years until in 1866, at the age of 22, she was accepted as a novice in the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Nevers.
She stayed at the convent until she died, not leaving even to attend the opening of a new basilica at Lourdes in 1876.
She suffered grievously asthma and tuberculosis and died on 16 April 1879 at the age of 35 years. When her body was exhumed in 1909 it was found incorrupt, preserved from decomposition.
Bernadette was beatified in 1925 and canonised by Pope Pius XI as St Maria Bernarda on December 8, 1933, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Today, Lourdes continues to attract about five million pilgrims ever year.
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