Monday, 11 February 2008

Our Lady of Lourdes

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the patron of our Diocese of Lancaster. Having already made a day-pilgrimage to Cleator and completed a novena in preparation for the feast, the celebration takes place in the Cathedral today. A sizeable congregation came to the 12:15pm Mass, including many children from the Cathedral Primary School. Mass ended with a procession to the Lady Chapel, where a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is decorated with flowers. Sung Vespers at 6pm today will also end with a torchlight procession, in the tradition of Lourdes.

Today's feast is especially significant because this day marks 150 years since the first appearance of Our Lady at Lourdes. Back then the Cathedral was but a shell, still under construction. The photo above is probably taken during the period of the apparitions. Mary appeared 18 times at a remote spot just outside of the small town of Lourdes in South-West France. Only one person saw her - a young girl called Bernadette Soubirous. Bernadette was plagued by ill health and struggled greatly at school, yet was God's chosen instrument in bringing the message of Lourdes to the outside world. That message is one of conversion - Mary told Bernadette to do penance and to pray for sinners. Her message is especially apt in this season of Lent.

Today Lourdes is a much larger town, built on the banks of the River Gave, dominated by hotels where millions of pilgrims stay each year. This anniversary year promises to be particularly busy, and one of the pilgrims this year will be the Holy Father, Pope Benedict.

Our Lady asked that a chapel be built at Lourdes, and her request has been granted several times over. Several large churches have been built, including a vast underground basilica (above), where the blessing of the sick takes place each day. The sick have a particular place of importance in Lourdes. There have been several thousand unexplained healings, with 67 recognised by the Church as miracles. These miracles are signs of the many types of healing (physical, emotional, spiritual) which take place in Lourdes.

Mary also requested that pilgrims come to Lourdes in procession. Between Easter and October each day thousands of people process from the grotto to the square in front of the Rosary Basilica. In the evening candles are carried in the famous 'torchlight' procession.

Our Lady of Lourdes was made patron of Lancaster when the diocese was established in 1924. Each year a few hundred people travel to Lourdes on the diocesan pilgrimage. The photo above shows Mass being celebrated in the grotto in 2005. The eagle-eyed might be able to spot Bishop Patrick behind the altar, and our own Fr Andrew (in his pre-Cathedral days!)