by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This summer, while visiting the Little Sisters of the Lamb motherhouse in St. Pierre, France, I was able to visit Lourdes for the first time. I had for many years wanted to visit the famous shrine of Mary’s appearance to the peasant girl, Bernadette.
I have always admired the faith and fortitude of Bernadette. All of the adults in her life doubted her reports of apparitions, and most of the townspeople thought she was crazy. Nevertheless, Bernadette knew the truth of what she was experiencing and, despite enormous pressure to do otherwise, she did precisely what Mary told her.
Bernadette’s family had fallen on hard economic times. It was because of this material poverty that Bernadette was out gathering wood for her family to use as fuel to warm their home when she encountered — on Feb. 11, 1858 — the one she described as the “Beautiful Lady.” Bernadette loved her family and was, by all reports, an obedient child. However, when her mother forbade her from returning to the grotto, Bernadette felt inwardly compelled to honor the request of the Beautiful Lady.
When Mary asked Bernadette to dig in the dry ground and to drink from a hidden spring, she did as instructed. At this moment, even the villagers who had been sympathetic to Bernadette thought she was crazy. She was subjected to medical tests to determine if she was mentally unstable. When Bernadette was interrogated by civil and church authorities, she responded with a childlike innocence but with complete conviction about the truth of what she had experienced at the grotto.
Finally, when 1) a spring indeed did materialize where Bernadette had dug, 2) miraculous cures began to happen to some who came with faith to wash in these waters, and 3) she told the parish priest the Beautiful Lady had identified herself as the Immaculate Conception — a title for Mary which her pastor knew Bernadette could not be familiar — many began to believe that the apparitions were authentic. And the rest, as they say, is history!
For more than 150 years, Lourdes has attracted millions of pilgrims. In the first 50 years after the apparitions, there were nearly 4,000 recorded healings. Most everyone who makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes comes back with renewed and deepened faith. The huge basilica built atop the grotto is a visual testimony of the devotion to Mary and the love for her son, Jesus, that have been engendered in the hearts of so many because of Bernadette’s simple, uncomplicated, but also unwavering faith.
Lourdes is a couple of hours drive from St. Pierre, so the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of the Lamb arranged for me to make a one-day pilgrimage. Early one morning in a van with five Little Sisters and two Little Brothers, we set off for Lourdes. While I was excited about going to Lourdes, I was not enthused about going into the baths.
I had heard the water was very cold. Even though I knew the physical arrangements were such that it was done very discreetly, I was not at all eager to have to remove my clothes. I had read in the information about pilgrimages to Lourdes how it was not at all necessary to go into the baths to have a very inspiring encounter with the Lord. After all, Bernadette herself had never plunged into the spring waters. I had resolved in my own mind that the baths would not be a part of my pilgrimage.
On the drive there, each of the Little Sisters and Little Brothers, who had already been to Lourdes, recounted the graces they had received from their own experiences of this holy place. They also told me of a special grace the Community of the Lamb had received in its formative years through a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Though my excitement was mounting for the visit to Lourdes, my resolve not to go into the baths remained.
Then Little Sister Marie Jean, one of the youngest of the Little Sisters on our mini-pilgrimage, shared her experiences of Lourdes and, in particular, the meaning of the baths for her. I recall her saying: “Ah, the baths! For me, it has been a beautiful opportunity to humble myself before the Lord. It is a moment to strip away my pride, place my faith completely in the Lord, and allow myself to be immersed in his love.” I am thinking to myself: “Sister, I wish you were not saying these things! How can I now not go into the baths?”
It was a wonderful day in Lourdes. We celebrated Mass in one of the chapels of the basilica. We prayed before the grotto and then were able to touch the stones beneath the hollow where Mary appeared. We had lunch on one of the lush lawns surrounding the grotto where we also sang midday prayer. We visited Bernadette’s family home as well as the fields outside of Lourdes where she tended the sheep. We visited the church where Bernadette was baptized. There I ran into Steve Angrisano — a well-known American musician, singer and youth minister. We encountered other pilgrims — a few other Americans whom I knew, many friends of the Community of the Lamb, and a multitude of young people on their way to World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain. In the afternoon, we were able to experience the daily eucharistic procession.
And, yes, thanks to Little Sister Marie Jean, I went into the baths. I found the time of waiting, before entering the bath, very peaceful and prayerful. I recalled the many people who had asked me to pray for them and their intentions. I remembered, particularly, the sick of the archdiocese, recalling as many as possible by name, asking Mary to bring these intentions for physical healing and spiritual strengthening to her Son.
For me, personally, it was a moment to surrender my life and my ministry to the Lord again. It was a moment to acknowledge my own poverty and helplessness to fulfill my responsibilities in the ministry of bishop.
Yet, it was also a time of great grace. I understood anew that all things are possible with God. After all, the Lord could use the faith of a simple, peasant girl to be the vehicle of bringing so much healing, hope and joy to so many.