Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(2) May 2017
Pilgrimage to Lourdes. A Protestant View.
Exclusively a Roman Catholic Preserve! No sound evangelical would go near the place!
Half a century ago a friend and I visited Lourdes. We arrived at 7am. Sensible people were asleep. A grey, depressing day, the town was virtually deserted. A few tired empty wheelchairs gave a clue to the nature of the town. The Church (The Rosary Basilica forming the base above which is the Crypt, surmounted by of the Church of The Immaculate Conception) certainly impressed. Elevated above the esplanade along which we strolled it had two semi-circular approaches, almost encircling arms, stretching out to welcome you. You can just make them out partly disguised by trees. However, to the unbelieving eye the grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared on eighteen occasions to the sickly, impoverished, illiterate, adolescent shepherdess Bernadette Soubirous disappointed. The town itself was full of cheap souvenirs and plastic bottles of ‘Holy Water’.
Tourist tat. Definitely not for me.
‘Visions’ for a Baptist.
‘Miracles’ for a medical student, engendered caution bordering on scepticism.
What changed my mind?
God’s choice may not be our choice. Remember Samuel when choosing David.  Later God revealed himself in a vision to Saul/ Paul  who had been persecuting the early disciples?
Why did He call Gladys Aylward, a teenage Edwardian parlour maid, to China? Protestant Missionary Societies had rejected her.  She saved to pay her own fare. During the Sino Japanese War she led a hundred Chinese children, 100 miles to safety on foot. Senior CMF members will remember the film ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ portraying her life. Her call came at the same age as Bernadette received her visions. On reflection my opening paragraph is insensitive. But Bernadette would not be concerned. When initially interrogated by intimidating prelates she responded ‘I must tell you what happened, not try to convince you.’
SOLL (Society of Our Lady of Lourdes) runs a week’s pilgrimage each year which includes 60-80 chronically disabled participants needing a myriad of lay helpers and qualified staff. The doctor who had previously accompanied them for years was retiring, as have I now. New blood was and is needed. Medical demands are slight but a practising doctor’s presence on a pilgrimage is required by the Lourdes Medical Committee. I was invited. Novel experiences beckoned. I could go. I went.
Attested healing miracles are rare at Lourdes. Biblical miracles are signs of God’s power and authority. The Lourdes Medical Bureau defines ‘Miracle’ as ‘a phenomenon contrary to the observations and experience of medical knowledge, and scientifically inexplicable.’ When claimed, findings are checked by the Lourdes International Medical Committee containing some of the highest medical and scientific authorities in the world. If accepted they are passed to the bishop in whose diocese the beneficiary lives, checking local knowledge of the patient’s faith and circumstances. Thousands of cures have been claimed but, since 1858, only about 70 cases pass these stringent tests. Five million pilgrims visit each year. Hopefully each experiences spiritual blessing with renewed personal commitment. Their personal mini-miracle.
A chartered plane taking patients/hereafter pilgrims some paralysed (often heavy) flies direct from Stansted to Lourdes. Most suffer longstanding disabilities. Before acceptance each completes a screening questionnaire and visit their GP who certifies them ‘Fit to Fly’. On landing Pilgrims are transferred to the Accueil Notre Dame, effectively a Nursing home. This year there were 67 invalids and 270 nurses/helpers working shifts. Helpers stay at local hotels within walking distance. The doctor is on call for 24 hours and then off for 24-48 hours depending on whether two or three doctors come. S/he has a separate bedroom with en suite facilities and a dedicated mobile phone meaning s/he need not remain permanently on site when on call. Experienced nurses mean undemanding workload and rare night calls. The most perplexing case I faced was not a pilgrim but a peripatetic Englishman who somehow wandered into the Accueil one evening with vomiting and acute abdominal pain. After thorough examination, conservative management (nursing observation) proved, next morning, to have been the correct option. He had been out on the town drinking!
An exciting and valuable experience, then, for both pilgrims and carers (for whom it is a pilgrimage too). Pilgrims/helpers need not be RC or even Christian believers. However the spiritual aspect is important. Pilgrimages, journeys dedicated to the further understanding of things spiritual, were not part of the tradition in which I was raised. Now I accept that, for many, they are an important aspect of belief. Discounting Noah, Abram, father of Judaism, is the first recorded example of a pilgrim answering God’s call.  Pilgrimages provide time for meditation and renewed inspiration. There is opportunity to attend Mass every day (observers welcome).
Father Bob, a devoted priest from the London East End, conducts one of these. He is assisted by severely educationally impaired altar servers when he officiates …..liturgy fixed, service reverend, but not always predictable. Every evening there is a torchlight procession up and down the esplanade – a half mile journey for meditation. Candles are lit, banners carried, Catholics pray the Rosary. It ends congregating in the Rosary Square in front of the Church where over a thousand, (ten thousand on special occasions), pray, exchange the sign of peace and are blessed.
In the park across the river from the grotto, there are newly sculpted Stations of the Cross. These include three extra Stations, one showing the risen Christ appearing to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. There is another, more traditional, wrought iron, series of Stations on the steep, wooded hillside by the side of the main Church, virtually inaccessible by wheelchair. A third series, non-leaded stained glass windows, is in the Basilica of St. Pius X. This, the largest underground building in the world, can accommodate 25,000 pilgrims. Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII opened it in 1958 celebrating the centenary of the Visions.
During our stay, we visited the ‘Cathedral of the Trees’ a picnic site just outside Lourdes for an outdoor Mass. Archbishop Kevin Macdonald who accompanied the pilgrimage gave the homily this year. One of the participants was taking her first communion. Truly memorable for her. Fortunately the weather this year was fine. It is not always so. Lourdes is in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Mountains mean variable weather. Another day the party drove to St. Savin, a very old, architecturally fascinating, church with breathtaking views over the valley below. A short bus trip from Lourdes, is the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer a funicular railway covering the steepest part of the ascent of a nearby mountain. A brief walk to the top. More stunning views. Plenty more interesting walks. No one complains of boredom. Many return year after year.
Although the primary intention is spiritual experience it is also a holiday. Away from Care Homes in which many stay, for a week they are stimulated by smiling, willing people from all walks of life devoted to their care. It being half term, three different schools send 100+ youngsters of Bernadette’s age (14) and teachers to help. Bringing that special teenage sense of excited anticipation they are ideally suited to take pilgrims into the town for shopping or meals out. There is great competition to come. Applicants write an essay saying why it is they who should be chosen. Their commitment to new responsibilities make a lasting impression. Some rate it more highly than a school skiing trip to Canada!
Carers are all volunteers paying their own fares. By the end of the pilgrimage the whole group – carers and pilgrims - experience a profound sense of blessing. Difficult to describe - almost tangible. Perhaps the reward for a task well done. Perhaps by helping others we are strengthened ourselves. Christianity in Action. To the benefit of everyone.
- 1 Sam 16
- Acts 9
- ‘Gladys Aylward. The Little Woman’ Alan Burgess 1957 Pan
- Gen 12:1
If you feel you might like to share and help this experience happen, then please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2017 the pilgrimage is from Friday 26 May 17 – Friday 2 June 17.
Doctors, nurses, and lay people are all welcome.
My friends at SOLL (Society of Our Lady of Lourdes 020 8561 0168) who organise the pilgrimage will contact you only when you so wish. Three doctors went in 2015, one Anglican, one Baptist and one of no firm religious belief.
David Beckitt is a retired GP who worked on the southern fringe of the London conurbation. He is a “committed ecumenical member of a large Baptist Church”.