PARISH LENTEN MISSION: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS OF THE LOURDES PILGRIMAGE, CONFERENCE I
"At that time, when Jesus had entered into Capaharnaum, there came to Him a centurion, beseeching Him, and saying: Lord my slaveboy lieth sick at home of the palsy and is grievously tormented, etc."
- St. Matthew 8:5-13
This Gospel Lesson is the Lesson for the Mass of Thursday after Ash Wednesday. In the year of the Lourdes Apparitions, 1858, Thursday after Ash fell on February 18th. It was the third Apparition Bernadette Soubirous received and the first time she heard Our Lady’s voice.
On that occasion Bernadette held out paper, pen and ink to the Apparition in the Grotto and asked her: “Would you be so kind as to write down your name and what it is you want of me?” The beautiful young Lady replied: “What I want to tell you does not have to be written down. Would you be so kind as to come back here for fifteen days? I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next.”
Looking back from our vantage point, knowing that the Catholic Shrine at Lourdes has become the world-wide shrine for miracles in the world, this Gospel Lesson of the healing of the centurion’s boy—with its association of healing of the sickness of the human body as a sign of the deeper, lasting healing of the sin-sickness of the human soul—on the day when Our Lady first spoke to Bernadette seems weighted with meaning.
Our Lenten Mission Theme for this year is: “The First Fifty Years of the Lourdes Pilgrimage”. It is, in a way, a continuation of last year’s Mission theme “Lourdes and the World of Second Empire France.” But it is, at the same time, a new story.
In her 1999 book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, Ruth Harris draws a dividing line between what she calls “The Lourdes of the Apparitions” and the “Lourdes of the Pilgrimage”. She treats them as two distinct phenomena, even if related to Bernadette Soubirous’ trustworthy testimony.
And, indeed, this is largely true. The Lourdes Pilgrimage, as it has developed, is not a straight line from the Bishop’s approval of the Lourdes Apparitions as “worthy of belief” in the 1860s. The Pilgrimage comes out of the reaction of French Catholics to the cataclysmic defeat of their armies by the Kingdom of Prussia and its German allies in 1870, a defeat which was followed by civil war. It seemed to many that all these calamities were the just punishment of God for the sins of France. It was God’s punishment for atheism, for revolutionary socialism, for the rejection of the King and all that the Throne of France represented for the godly order and the building up of Christendom, from the Baptism of Clovis King of the Franks by St. Remy on Christmas Day, 496, to King St. Louis IX, the valiant “Crusader King” and the personification of the good Christian king, to Joan of Arc, who brought Charles the Dauphin to Rheims in order to crowned as Charles VII the rightful King of France, to Louis XVI, martyred on the guillotine by the godless murderers of the French Revolution.
In the wake of the catastrophe of 1870-71, the center-of-gravity of the opinion of the majority of French Catholics, if we might put it that way, was for the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the re-invigoration of French society by the traditional ideals of the Catholic world of the Middle Ages. The Comte de Chambord, the heir-presumptive to the Throne of France, returned in 1871, and styled himself Henri V. Political forces were mobilized to bring off a Restoration. The moment was favorable indeed.
It was in this climate that the first massmobilized, national pilgrimages to Lourdes began. The first one was the National Pilgrimage of Penance in October, 1872.
Over these next five Conferences, we will follow the story of the mass pilgrimages to Lourdes up until the 50th Anniversary of the Apparitions, in 1908. We shall try to understand what the first organizers were striving to achieve, comparing and contrasting their aims with the results. It is a story (as all human stories are) of how God writes straight with crooked human lines.