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Every day, thousands of Marian devotees from all over the world gather at Lourdes in France, where a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858.
Growing up in a Catholic school, I was familiar with Bernadette's story, and last April, I had the chance to visit Lourdes on a Marian pilgrimage with 15 other Filipinos.
At the grotto of Massabielle, we lined up to touch the cold walls and taste a drop of water from a spring believed to be miraculous. Flowers, letters, jewelry and other ex-voto (offerings) items are left by grateful pilgrims who believe their faith has healed them. Pilgrims say the rosary daily at the Grotto, which is transmitted on radio, TV and the Internet.
Next to the Grotto, water from the spring flows from several taps, where pilgrims fill their containers to drink and bring back home. "Wash your face, drink this water, and pray God to purify your heart," reads an inscription above the taps.
Although not required, many pilgrims also go to the Baths in the building past the Grotto. Constructed in 1955, there are 17 baths where men, women and children are immersed in 12-degree-Celsius water. Some of us fell in line for the baths, while others decided to explore the area. We had a whole day to go around Lourdes, and apart from several churches to visit, there was plenty to see and do.
"Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and to build a chapel here," the Lady told Bernadette in one of the apparitions. We visited the Crypt, which was the first chapel to be built in response to the Lady's request. Construction began in 1862, and the Crypt was opened in 1866.
On the rock above the grotto, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built between 1866 and 1872. Below is the Rosary Basilica with two large mosaic panels above the main doors. Fronting the Basilica is the 130-meter Rosary Square, where pilgrims of all nations gather every night and say the rosary in their native languages. At one point, we were allowed to lead the prayers in Filipino.
Apart from the chapels, pilgrims can visit the Museum of the Miraculously Cured, where there are display panels and showcases on miracles relating to Lourdes. There is also the Museum of Precious Objects, where vestments, relics and 19th and 20th century liturgical art are kept.
Way of the Cross
One unusual experience at Lourdes is walking the Way of the Cross on the Espelugues Hill. Cast iron representations of the 15 stations stand along a steep 1,500-meter pathway. As we made our way up the hill, we saw squirrels hopping from branch to branch. The path ends behind the Upper Basilica, in a zigzag path that leads down to the Baths.
There is also a Way of the Cross in the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X. Consecrated in 1958, the basilica was designed by architect Pierre Vago in the form of an upturned ship. Fifty-two "Gemmail" stained glass images decorate the basilica, representing the 15 Stations of the Cross, the story of the Apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette, and the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, but in the basilica everything was cold and dark.
In the meadow across the river is the Church of St. Bernadette, the Adoration Chapel, and the Way of the Cross Low Stations, which was constructed in consideration of disabled pilgrims.
Around Lourdes, all the streets are clearly marked with wheelchair lanes, as many of the pilgrims who come to Lourdes are sick and disabled.
Every day, the Blessed Sacrament Procession is conducted in the six usual languages of the Sanctuary. The sick and disabled pilgrims are at the front, in blue covered wheelchairs pushed by volunteer scouts and guides.
Lourdes is always full of people, and at certain times of the year, the scene resembles a fiesta. Groups of pilgrims wear costumes, while some have cheers which they shout at the top of their lungs. Adding to the merry atmosphere, the area is surrounded by shops selling religious items, like rosaries, storybooks about St. Bernadette, and candles.
The bestsellers were containers of all sizes. From tiny vials to jugs that could hold gallons, almost every Lourdes pilgrim will end up buying something to keep the spring water in. For years, the water has been believed to heal the sick. But it is important to keep in mind, said pilgrim chaplain Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, that apparitions are a reminder for the faithful, and it is the message, not the miracle, that matters most. –KG, GMA News