150th Anniversary Year of the Immaculate Conception
December 8th, 2003 --------- December 8th, 2004
I AM the IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
Ode to Our Lady of Lourdes
Fragrance of presence, Spring healing, Grace, Light;
Bridal openness–fount of Mercy,
Spouse of Spirit Holy, Rose spotless, white;
Life-breath of grace, children born in your Heart,
Mother us, carry us — home to Paradise!
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PILGRIMAGE TO LOURDES
A DREAM COME TRUE!
SEPTEMBER 5th – It was about 10:30 PM when our Paris train pulled into the Lourdes Station. The cars were well occupied but the people did not seem like pilgrims. Where was the “Lourdes Train” with its hymns and prayers, the sick with their nurses – all on their way to the most famous Marian Shrine in the world? But as we came to a stop and descended onto the small but adequate, well-lit Station — MARY WAS THERE — her smiling, welcoming presence enveloped me. I was at Lourdes! My dream was coming true.
My brother, John, who was accompanying me went to call a taxi while I waited with the luggage. Then I turned and there it was – a Lourdes Train! with nurses and sick hanging out the windows, singing and waving goodbye to their Queen. My heart was full; Mary was at my side.
The taxi wound its way through the narrow streets on the way to our hotel. But in a few minutes we could barely inch our way forward. It was getting close to midnight. As we neared the Domain of the Grotto, the little town was alive with lights, shops and literally thousands of pilgrims milling through the streets. It was like a New Years’s Eve or a grand Christmas Celebration. My heart sang. This was MARY’S CITY. She was everywhere; a glorious Marian celebration that never ends!
SEPTEMBER 6th – I awoke at 4:30 AM and quickly set out to find the blessed niche that had been drawing me for so many years. Coming closer to what is called Our Lady’s Domain, I found hundreds of people scurrying in the dark towards the Sanctuary, carrying large candles, lost in their prayer. As I approached the Grotto for the first time and hidden in the early morning darkness, I summoned the courage to follow the dictates of my heart and for a few precious moments lay prostrate before my Queen . . . Take Lord, receive . . . Mary, I am all yours; make me completely His. In a little while there was a Spanish Eucharist, guitars and all. As I found my way back to the hotel and breakfast, I knew that my charism was to live in Mary; all the rest would work out according to God’s plan.
Since this was to be John’s only day at Lourdes, we made a complete tour. Because of threatening rain the daily Eucharistic Procession and Blessing of the Sick took place in the underground Basilica of St. Pius X. It is a massive structure which holds between 25,000 and 30,000 people. Its purpose is functional and it is made of grey concrete with almost no ornamentation. The altar in the center dominates the entire Basilica and is easily seen by all the worshipers, no matter where they are seated. Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is truly Lord and King at Lourdes and Mary points the way. The Mass is everywhere and notices of times and languages are posted daily. That evening we attended a French Eucharist in the Rosary Basilica.
Later, at 7:30 PM, the bells rang out and the crowds assembled quietly, lining up in groups for the magnificent and unforgettable Candlelight Procession. We attached ourselves to a group carrying a banner PILGRIMS for the DAY! Thousands of participants processed down the esplanade and around the Grotto grounds; it lasted about an hour. The Rosary was recited in different languages over a loud speaker and the Lourdes Hymn was sung in-between the decades. The whole atmosphere was alive with light as each one walked along with his or her candle. At the AVE, AVE, AVE MARIA every candle was raised on high in solemn tribute to the Mother of God. This was my one and only experience of the evening Candlelight Procession as John left on the morrow for Monaco and Switzerland and I began my stay at the Monastery of the Cloistered Dominican Nuns — too far to be walking home alone at night. However, the experience was so overwhelming that I do not think I could have sustained it on a regular basis along with the daily graces of my twenty-one days at Lourdes.
SEPTEMBER 7th – This was my first bathing in the Living Waters of the Lourdes Spring. One has to wait in line until the benches are reached and then one moves along until it is your turn to go inside. Meanwhile, the Rosary is being recited, meditations given, hymns sung, and continuous prayers are voiced in different languages over the loudspeaker. Rain or shine the line is long and it generally takes about three hours. I was privileged to enter the miraculous waters eight times and each entry was a faith experience of total submersion in the mystery of Mary. The Spring is her gift of healing grace to all who come with childlike and thirsting hearts.
A few yards away the Spring flows through several faucets where one can drink and wash one’s face according to Our Lady’s instruction to Bernadette, or fill containers from the never-ending flow. There is a thoughtful courtesy here which I experienced many times. The people with gallon jars regularly let those with tiny vessels step in and out ahead of them.
SEPTEMBER 9th – I visited the cachot, or jail, where St. Bernadette and her family were forced to live when they became too poor to remain in their original dwelling. The room was a dark stone cell about twelve by fifteen feet. I sat there in silence a long time. Now the whole world comes to see what God has accomplished within these destitute externals. As God’s grace broke through the utter poverty of Bernadette’s life, so too, He can break through the blessed poverty of ours if we but surrender with complete confidence to His merciful Love.
SEPTEMBER 12th – the Holy Name of Mary. Today I splurged and bought the three largest candles. They will burn before the Grotto sometime during the year as it is impossible to burn all the candles requested during the summer months. All the intentions of my family, relatives, friends and Maryknoll were included in the prayerful burning of those candles in gratitude for such a gift.
SEPTEMBER 14th – Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. I set aside this special day to make the Way of the Cross. The Stations are situated on a rather steep incline up the mountainside. The very first Station has a facsimile of the Scala Sancta inviting one to climb on one’s knees up to the Station itself. The road gets steeper and steeper from the first to the fourteenth Station. There were many other pilgrims praying along the way, either alone or in groups. It is a rugged exercise! At the end there is the empty tomb with a giant circular stone rolled back . . . HE IS NOT HERE! . . . HE LIVES! . . . EVERYWHERE! Finally, there is Mary and John, and Jesus Crucified. Mary is offering us the Rosary. At the very last of this Via Crucis is the Gaelic Cross.
SEPTEMBER 15th – Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The sick are the guests of honor at Lourdes. They are to be found everywhere in their rickshaw style transports being wheeled about by the countless volunteers who dedicate their free and loving service. Some of my most soul-stirring and unforgettable memories are of exquisite smiles of heavenly joy radiating from the faces of those who are totally incapacitated as they passed beneath the Grotto to greet the Queen of heaven, their Queen and Mother.
SEPTEMBER 19th – The Eucharistic Procession and Blessing of the Sick takes place every day from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM. On this particular day I had spent the entire afternoon praying at the Grotto which won for me a coveted spot at Our Lady’s feet. Here crowds are always waiting for a seat. Around 3 PM the attendants began sending people outside the vicinity proper and clearing the area in preparation for the great Procession. I was left sitting next to a group of Religious Sisters. I had not known then that Sisters always lead the Procession behind the Blessed Sacrament carried in a gold Monstrance by the Bishop. It was a glorious moment as in single file we slowly and majestically processed the entire Lourdes Domain, with crowds following and crowds watching the pageant until we all assembled in our ordered places. In a vast open area before the Rosary Basilica, an altar was set up awaiting our Lord and King. All the while, the singing and swelling organ music created a moving background.
As we assembled, it seemed I saw before me a huge crowd which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and the Lamb . . . the 144,000 standing before the throne of God. . . He will guide them to the springs of the water of Life; and God will wipe all tears from their eyes (Rev 7). It was as if I were being given a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.
Then Bishop began making the Sign of the Cross with the Blessed Sacrament over every two or three wheelchairs arranged on three sides around the large square. All waited in hushed expectancy for this special moment of miraculous healing while the prayers over the loudspeaker cried out, LORD HEAL ME! They say that at this time no one can pray for oneself but only for others. So too, I could not pray for myself but only that others be healed. But as the Monstrance was raised for the closing blessing at Benediction I realized that a knee problem had disappeared and I could freely kneel again to say the Rosary. MAGNIFICAT! MAGNIFICAT! ANIMA MEA DOMINUM! With a full heart I joined in this glorious, final hymn.
SEPTEMBER 25th – The day of departure had come and I must bid Our Lady farewell. Seated before her Grotto in the pouring rain, her final gift was her presence. She seemed to smile upon me and when I looked up a pink rose was blooming at her feet. Then, walking towards St. Michael’s Bridge in the rain, as I passed beneath some trees, a flock of birds burst into song. Arise, my love, my fair one and come away . . . . the flowers appear on the earth and the song of the birds is heard in our land (Song 2:11,12). OUR LADY of LOURDES had answered all my prayers!
Sr. Thomas Mary Mc Bride, O.P.