“After these things was a festival day of the Jews: and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem a pool called Probatica, which in Hebrew is named Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered: waiting for the moving of the water. And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pool and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pool after the motion of the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he lay under.”
–St. John 5:1-4

The scene here of the sick around the Pool of Bethesda calls to mind the modern-day world of the Lourdes shrine, where sick pilgrims from across the globe come to be immersed in the baths for the sick, praying for a cure through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, Notre Dame de Lourdes. Indeed the connection between this Gospel Lesson and the Shrine at Lourdes in not at all fanciful.

On the day in which the Lourdais realized that a copious stream of pure underground spring water was coming up out of the grotto of the large rock of the Massabielle, precisely from where Bernadette had been digging in the dirt and trying to drink the day before, because the Apparition of the Lady was telling her to, it was Ember Friday in Lent (the same liturgical day as to-day). The Gospel for the Mass that day was St. John 5:1-15, one of the “water-lessons” of the ancient Church’s Baptismal Catechesis. In this Gospel, Jesus heals a paralyzed man who has been in this state for 38 years. No-one is there to help him to the pool in time to get into the healing water first, so his situation is hopeless. The Lord asks him if he wishes to be made whole. Then the Lord commands: “Arise, take up thy mat and walk.” He does so immediately.

This miracle is therefore used by the Church as a parable of sacramental grace. The pool of Bethesda is an image of the baptismal font. The paralyzed man is the human race, unable to rise from its sinful condition. Christ’s command to rise and walk is the effect of sanctifying grace on the soul by means of the baptismal regeneration. Thus the Catechumens are given to understand that they too will be “made whole” by being baptized into Christ. Thus we see: the miraculous appearance of the stream at Lourdes, flowing out of the side of the rock re-enforces the ancient Church’s Baptismal Catechesis.

But was it this awareness of the depths of sacramental mystery which brought about the mass pilgrimages to Lourdes, which are still very much part of our world today? No, it was not: neither on the part of the clergy nor on the part of the lay faithful.  

As we touched upon in last Friday’s introductory Conference, the story of the Lourdes Pilgrimage is another story from the Apparitions to Bernadette. Bernadette declared that she had 18 Apparitions of Our Lady in 1858, who revealed her name to her under the title of her singular privilege: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. After due process of investigating the claims, the local Bishop authorized a devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. Since Our Lady had instructed Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel for people to come in procession, preparations were underway in the 1860s to build a shrine church over the Massabielle. Bernadette herself had left Lourdes to enter the religious life as a Sister of Charity of Nevers. She was never a part of the mass pilgrimages which commenced in the 1870s.

The impetus for mass pilgrimage to Lourdes was the French Empire’s humiliating defeat, a defeat quick and sudden, at the hands of the Kingdom of Prussia’s German Coalition, and the civil war which broke out in Paris in its wake. Concurrent with France’s military defeat in 1870 was the King of Sardinia’s armed conquest of Rome and the proclamation of a new Kingdom of Italy. When war broke out with Prussia, Napoleon III withdrew his protecting garrison from Rome leaving the Holy See with an inadequate papal volunteer army to defend the city.

For many French Catholics the defeat of France and the Pope’s loss of sovereignty were as one great apocalyptic event, like the divine chastisements of Israel in the Old Testament of the Bible. It seemed evident that the way forward after such chastisement was the recovery of the lost Catholic world of the High Middle Ages, the “Age of Faith”, the Catholic world of King St. Louis and St. Thomas Aquinas, the world of the great gothic cathedrals, the monasteries, the pilgrimages, the world of a (romanticised) Catholic social order where the rich were the almoners of the poor.

Such a recovery meant, it would seem evident, the Restoration of the Monarchy, that is, the legitimate Catholic Monarchy of the Royal House of Bourbon, whose emblem was the fleur -de-lys, and not some usurper like LouisNapoleon Bonaparte who had brought France to utter ruin and betrayed the Pope to his enemies. Such French monarchists were (and are still) known as legitimistes. At this moment in history, after the Franco-Prussian War, it is fair to speak of Catholic France as Royalist France.  

It was in this spirit of Royalist Restoration that this first mass pilgrimage to Lourdes took place. It was termed the National Pilgrimage of Penance. Well-organized by a priest who had been impressed by a local Procession he had seen in October, 1871, this Pilgrimage of Penance involved delegations coming from all the major sanctuaries in France to pay homage to Our Lady of the Rosary, who (to quote) “preserved...for the Christian nations their independence and faith.”

The Pilgrimage took place on October 6th, 1872, with representatives from all parts of France and from the French colonies. As Ruth Harris accounts in her history Lourdes: “The banners they brought were left in the basilica to commemorate the occasion, representing a religious map of France, a world of parishes and dioceses that little heeded the borders of [the French] revolutionary departments. Although not repeated, the pilgrimage epitomized the historical, spiritual and aesthetic proclivities of the movement as a whole, recalling an age of medieval splendor and pageantry.” (Harris, pg. 255)

This Pilgrimage of Penance became known as the “Pilgrimage of the Banners” because of all of the banners, flags and medallions which were left in the new basilica over the Grotto as votive offerings.

Such was the inaugural mass pilgrimage to Lourdes. In its petitions it sought heaven’s help to revive the Catholic faith of France, “eldest daughter of the Church”, to restore to her, her rightful King, Henry V, and to liberate Pope Pius IX, the “Prisoner of the Vatican”, restoring to him the so-called “Robe of Peter”, which was his temporal sovereignty in Rome and the Papal States.

Fr, Higgins

About Our Parish

Mary Immaculate of Lourdes is Newton and Needham Massachusetts's oldest Roman Catholic Parish. Founded as Saint Mary's Parish in 1870 it was renamed "Mary Immaculate of Lourdes" when the new Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1910. In addition to being a regular territorial parish of the Archdiocese of Boston it is also a "Mission Parish" since 2007 with a special apostolate for the Traditional Latin Mass (1962 Missal).

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