Kansas pilgrims find devotion to Our Lady still strong
by Joe Bollig
More than 70,000 people from around the world joined Father Harry Schneider on the occasion of his 60th birthday.
They weren’t there for the cake, however.
Father Schneider, 58 other archdiocesan pilgrims from Topeka and Overland Park, and a cast of thousands were in France on Feb. 11 for the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes, which were witnessed by St. Bernadette Soubirous between Feb. 11 and July 16, 1858.
St. Bernadette was born into a family that was very devout, but utterly impoverished. She was 14 years old when she saw the apparitions at the Grotto of Massabielle. During her visions, she was told to uncover a spring under a rock at the grotto.
Since that time and to this day, tens of thousands from all over the world have made the pilgrimage to that same grotto at Lourdes, seeking both physical and spiritual healing. Many drink or bathe in the waters that issue from the spring Bernadette revealed — waters which have been credited with miraculous cures. In the 150 years since the visions, the church has recognized 67 inexplicable healings associated with the shrine.
Three months ago, Pope Benedict XVI promoted the anniversary observance by decreeing a plenary indulgence for all Catholics who travel to Lourdes in 2008. The indulgence is also granted to Catholics who fulfill similar requirements closer to home.
Father Schneider, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, grew up in a family with a strong devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, so the two anniversaries dovetailed nicely.
“My birthday is Feb. 11, 1948,” said Father Schneider. “About 10 years ago I discovered, while looking ahead, that on the 150th anniversary of [the apparition] in 2008, I’d be 60, so I began to plan for that.”
What started as a personal pilgrimage began to snowball when parishioners learned of his plans and asked to accompany him. A tour was arranged, which included stops in Rome and Assisi, Italy.
The archdiocesan pilgrimage group arrived in Lourdes on Feb. 8. They spent the next three days at the shrine and the town of Lourdes, where the local hotels and shops opened up for the influx of pilgrims, even though it was the off-season.
“For me, it was an opportunity to be closer to St. Bernadette, to learn more about her and her spirituality,” said Melanie Schreck, a member of Holy Spirit Parish. “To be there during the anniversary was a big, motivating factor.”
While there, the archdiocesan pilgrims visited the parish where St. Bernadette was baptized, the Soubirous home, the Grotto of Massabielle and the basilica. Father Schneider celebrated Mass each day, and there were eucharistic processions and candlelight rosary processions each night.
Holy Spirit parishioner and pilgrim Lucy Olberding was most impressed by one of the rosary processions.
“It sent chills up and down my spine,” said Olberding. “The strength of the Catholic people’s faith is what really impressed me.”
A high point for Joann Feehan, another Holy Spirit parishioner, was entering the grotto itself.
“It’s a rocky cave,” said Feehan. “Probably 30 to 50 people could walk through it. A little French lady kept tugging at me. She wanted me to touch the wall of the grotto, so I took a rosary and touched it, and that seemed to make her happy.”
The pilgrims learned later that actually touching the walls of the grotto itself — whether directly, or with a rosary, a scarf or a prayer intention — was considered the best way to invoke Mary’s intercession.
Another thing that impressed Feehan was the number of candles people left at the shrine. Attendants were constantly carrying out partially burned candles of all shapes and sizes to make room for more. Feehan even saw a candle so large it had to be moved with a dolly.
Although the majority of the 70,000 pilgrims seemed to be French and Italian, the Holy Spirit contingent saw pilgrims from all over the world. As one of the few groups of Americans, the Kansans received their 15 minutes of fame in the local newspaper, La Depeche Hautes-Pyrenees, which published their group photo in its Feb. 10 issue.
The experience led many of the pilgrims to a deeper appreciation of St. Bernadette and Our Lady’s message at Lourdes.
“Lourdes really expressed her call to prayer and penance, and for the conversion of sinners,” said Father Schneider. “[It has] a sense of the universality of that message of Jesus, and affirming [Our Lady’s] maternal love for everyone.”