Lourdes: "I Am The Immaculate Conception" Part 1. By Monsignor John T. McMahon, M.A., PH.D.


So much has been written about Lourdes that it is superfluous to add anything except my own personal reactions. Lourdes is nobler in conception, lovelier in situation, and more spiritual in its atmosphere than I had anticipated. Our Lady has drawn from the hearts of her children the world over a stream of generosity that has built her Basilica in majestic proportions.
In 1858 this was an area for swine-herds; and now two magnificent churches stand -one atop the other-clinging to the rocky shoulders of the Pyrenees, while at the base of this foundation of rock rests the flickering grotto. The lower church is the Church of the Rosary and in front of this is Rosary Square, where the crowds assemble at night, and in the afternoons the sick and the maimed are drawn up. Two winding stairways of stone branch from Rosary Square to the entrance of the Basilica, whose spire soars over the scene. Within the Basilica are the chapels of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary and the magnificent high altar and spacious sanctuary. From the balcony you look down on Rosary Square, and beyond to the distant Calvary group towards which the torch-light procession goes each evening, along the tree shaded boulevard. From this vantage point you see the Gave River racing by, the well laid out gardens, the shrubs, the trees, and the green, green lawns. The sun is shining and there is a mountain crispness in the air. It is a beautiful setting. The country all round is mountainous, rewarding the energetic with wonderful panoramas. A mountain mist keeps the flowers in bloom, the shrubs healthy, and the lawns evergreen. There is a peace and restfulness in this lovely spot. .
Lourdes is more spiritual in its atmosphere than I had hoped for. One hears the criticism of commercialism in its booths, but my own experience was that the booths have none of the high-powered salesmanship of the modern mart. All the goods for sale at Lourdes have the prices on them. You wander in and out of the open shops, and no one tries to sell you anything.
Prayer is in the air of this incredible place. It walks the streets of Lourdes audible and unashamed. The moment you leave your hotel room you take the beads in your hand and tell them in Mary’s honour. Whether you march in procession or pray in chorus, or better still, kneel in the after-sundown dusk at the Grotto, you feel that Mary is helping you to pray. Faith is not easy to describe. Faith does not lend itself to words-even in a shrine like Lourdes, where Faith is the prime reason for the very existence of the place and is in the air of the Pyrenees you breathe.

A Change of Heart

No one goes to Lourdes without experiencing a change of heart. That is the daily miracle of Lourdes, the unseen and unrecorded one of the deepening of the spiritual life of hundreds of thousands each year. In this machine age of scientific wonders such as television machines, disease-killing drugs, and atomic energy, many tend to doubt the unseen changes which occur within the hearts of the pilgrims. The little girls who accompanied Bernadette that first day to gather kindling wood near the grotto would not believe because they did not see. “When the others came back with their sticks, Bernadette asked them if they had seen anything. They said no. They thought it was all nonsense and said she was a silly girl and had made it up.” Abbe J. Belleney wrote about the apparitions in the simplest form, a form that Bernadette herself, who had trouble reading and writing, could have understood:
‘”Suddenly she heard a rushing sound like a great wind. She looked up at the tall rock above her, and then fell down on her knees, for there in a hole in the rock stood the most lovely lady she had ever seen. A bright light shone all round her, and she was dressed in white with a long blue sash. A rosary hung over her arm, and golden roses were at her feet.”
The beautiful lady wished that crowds would come to Lourdes, and what a wonderfuI response the people of all nations have given to that wish! Once there, she takes each one by the hand, and mother-like, leads them to the feet of her Divine Son. In short, we go to Jesus through Mary, and it is her divine mission to help us with the reassuring touch of her hand in ours. All through the days I spent at Lourdes I felt that purpose working within me. Saying my Mass at the Grotto, assisting at the blessing of the sick, marching in the torchlight processions, making the Way of the Cross, and during visits to the Blessed Sacrament I felt Mary by my side helping me to pray; and that was the experience of so many of my companions.

The Crutches of the Cured

The Grotto is constantly tugging at one’s elbow to return again and again every day you spend at Lourdes. The weatherbeaten crutches and evil trusses hang in the rain and sun over the entrance to the cave where the statue stands, where the candles burn, and the people from the ends of the earth, many on stretchers, pass. These symbols are left by the cured. They represent only a small percentage of the pilgrims, but they remain the very harbingers of hope.
It is difficult for a mechanised people to comprehend how the pitiable sick can summon up the look in their faces, the look that says: “Now, at last, I will be made whole.” Ever since February 11, 1858, when the Mother of God lifted the thin veil which hides her constant nearness to all mankind and revealed herself to Bernadette Soubirous, the poor, uneducated girl of fourteen, at the grotto of Massabieille, near the Gave River, the little carts with their burden of sick have been wheeled from the pools to the Grotto.
Beneath the rock of Massabieille the Grotto glitters in the light of its thousand candles. Beyond the iron grille is the statue of the Virgin, standing in the hollowed rock where Bernadette once saw the glowing vision of the lady in white, the Immaculate Conception. In front of the iron grille are the stretchers, and on them are laid the patient sick. From 2.30 each afternoon they come from the baths to the Grotto and back to the Rosary Square for the solemn blessing of the sick.

The Song of Bernadette

The resignation of these sufferers preaches a sermon that goes direct to one’s heart. Speak to them and learn how cheerful they are, confident that Mary will do what is best for them, remembering her words to Bernadette that she may not restore health and happiness here, but promises a big reward hereafter. That is the gift of Lourdes to the sick pilgrims. They return home happier and better, even though not necessarily cured. In their hearts is the Song of Bernadette, the song of resignation, a song that each of us must learn to sing; and the miracle that never fails at Lourdes is that all the sick who come, return to their homes singing that song.

The Prayer of Pain

The sick who come to Lourdes learn best the secrets given to Bernadette. Those secrets were demands made on her by Our Lady. From the apparitions to her death Bernadette practised those secrets, her prayer was the prayer of pain. We do not use the prayer of pain, sorrow, worry and humiliation enough. Why waste such precious pleading? In the Garden, being in agony, He prayed the longer. And His greatest prayer was made as He hung upon the Cross on Calvary.
The prayer of pain is a devotion, a spending of oneself, a giving of self, a spiritual bargaining. The smugness of just being good is broken when one sets out for a cause outside oneself. Our faith grows within the more it is shared outside. Hoard it and it decreases. A prayer of pain offered for sinners, said in reparation for sin, goes direct to the heart of Christ, Who led the way for us when He prayed from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The Blessing of the Sick

Earth holds no more poignant hour than the blessing of the sick every afternoon at Lourdes. The stretchers with their precious sick are wheeled away from the Grotto on to Rosary Square, where they are arranged row on row. The procession of the Blessed Sacrament leaves the Grotto. I walked beside the Bishop of Lourdes, who carried the Monstrance, for it was Rosary Sunday. We came slowly to the accompaniment of hymns and the Rosary to the Square now crowded with the cases from the hospital wards. I looked at their pale, drawn faces, and lips busy with prayers, and all of them showed a great serenity. One of the marshals came bustling up to even up the line of stretchers. Then a young French priest took his place at the microphone for the time had come for the solemn litany. The Square was filled, a sea of white faces and hatless heads reached to the River Gave. The priest began his dramatic invocations by lifting his arms and holding them out like a cross.
“Holy Virgin, heal our sick,” he cried in a voice full of emotion.
“Holy Virgin, heal our sick,” the crowd responded with a cry like the rolling of waves.
“Holy Virgin,” intoned the priest, “hear our prayers.”
The voice of the crowd thundered back in echo.
“Jesus, Master, that I may see.” “Jesus, Master, that I may speak.” “Jesus, Master, that I may hear.” “Jesus, Master, that I may walk.”
The voice of the crowd caught the dramatic quality in the priest’s ejaculations and roared them back. Here and there people held out their arms. Some of the sick half raised themselves on their stretchers. The atmosphere was tense with expectancy.
The Bishop slowly raised the Sacred Host to bless each one of the stretcher cases. I could see the eyes of the afflicted look up at the Monstrance as of old the sick looked up into His Face. What faith, what confidence, what hope shines in those pale, wan faces! A mother took her epileptic boy in her arms: his tongue was hanging out, his limbs were twitching, his expression was horrifying, but in the mother’s eyes shone a love for this deformed son of her womb, and as the tears streamed down her cheeks, her lips muttered her words that the child of her heart might be cured. She held the wriggling boy until he almost touched the Monstrance, as if mindful of that suffering woman of old who assured herself that she would be cured were she only to touch the hem of His garment. The emotion of the moment swept over the people, and tears flowed freely. I was strong and healthy that day, but the mood caught at my throat and sent a tremor along my spine. Suddenly I wanted to cry. If a strong, healthy man could be carried away, what must be the effect on sick and suffering people in all their weakness?

Jesus of Nazareth Passes By

Thus for a few hours Jesus of Nazareth passed through the lines of little carts. We all felt His presence as if a breath from heaven, intangible, powerful, irresistible swept over us. We accepted the reality of the unseen, and our hope in Him grew. As I walked beside the Bishop of Lourdes bearing Our Blessed Lord to the sick, the strength of Job’s faith was mine for those precious moments, and Job’s words: “I believe that my Redeemer liveth,” were echoing in my soul. Many priests lying in their stretchers were so overcome by His Presence by their beds of pain that they just clasped their hands, lowered their eye-lids, and let their tears speak to Him. If anywhere faith can be sublimated to vision it must happen in Rosary Square, Lourdes, during the blessing of the sick.
The atmosphere of tense expectancy owes much to the dramatic quality of the French announcers during the litany of the sick. One moment electrified me. The priest with arms uplifted, said to us:
“My brethren, let us lift our arms in prayer.”
A forest of arms was raised in the most moving expression of prayer that I have ever seen.
I thanked His Lordship for the privilege of holding the cope during those memorable hours, but I did not want to leave the sick who had done so much for me, moving me deeper than any sermon has ever done. I followed the carts to the hospital served by Sisters and voluntary workers during the summer months. On arrival an English titled lady welcomed me and conducted me through the wards. There were pitiable sights there to remind me to count my blessings, and to thank God for the gift of normal health as one of my chief blessings. But should His testing and purifying hand fall on me in sickness I shall try to recall the resignation and submission to His Holy Will so evident on the serene and happy faces of the sick at Lourdes.

The Cold Baths

From the hospital I went to the pools. I left the sunny warm air and went into the bathroom. A cold and forbidding sunken bath, leaden in colour, was full of water that did not look clean. A statue of Our Lady on a niche over the bath assured me. I stripped and stood hesitating on the wet flagstones, and stepped down into icy water. I did the three immersions with the prescribed invocations and came up the steps to where my clothes hung. Still dripping, I put on my clothes with fears of a nasty chill. For a moment my clothes felt damp and uncomfortable, but by the time I had my shoes laced I was as warm as toast. I asked the priests who were with me how they felt and it was the same with them. The very sick are lowered into the baths. Patients with all kinds of skin diseases use the same water. There is not a towel in the whole establishment, so on go your clothes over your wet body, and Our Lady suspends the usual reaction from such imprudence, for no one contracts a cold.

The Torch-Light Procession

At eight-thirty in a windless evening we assembled for the torch-light procession. The long-stemmed torches with their artistic shades are bought at the booths and, falling in, you march behind your banners. Down the wide boulevard the procession moves singing the Lourdes “Ave, Ave.” with jubilation. The saying of the Rosary comes easy, distractions are few, and devotion is welling up in the hearts of all. The procession turns at the Calvary group and returns by the other boulevard to Rosary Square. Here the Lourdes officials direct the pilgrims to figure march around the Square. On another evening I stood on the balcony outside the Basilica and viewed this magnificent spectacle. It was like a carnival parade of glow-worms with their lamps ablate, for you can only see the torches moving, the holders are hidden in the darkness. Our torchlight procession on Rosary Sunday was a special one, for when our pilgrims had all entered the Square, on went the light which picked out the lines of the Basilica, and mounted the tall, slender spire to illuminate the statue of Our Lady in a warm glow of light. Our hearts were full, and when the Creed was intoned in Latin it was indeed an act of faith, a glorious finish to an evening spent with Our Lady. Usually the torchlight procession brings the day to a finish, but not for us. We gathered in the upper Basilica at 11 p.m. for a Holy Hour, then Solemn High Mass at midnight. During the High Mass we priests who were not on ceremonies said Mass in one of the chapels of the Mysteries of the Rosary. A fussy sacristan ordered us about, and gave us a chalice with only one particle for whoever served the Mass; no one else may receive Holy Communion at the private Masses.

Praying the Mass at the Grotto

Mass at midnight is always a devotional experience. I enjoyed saying that Mass in the Chapel of the Annunciation. But the next morning when I was privileged to say Mass on the simple altar of the Grotto I was deeply impressed.
I often picture the scene at Ephesus when St. John the Evangelist, its first Bishop, said Mass in the presence of Mary. Both of them had stood beneath the Cross on Calvary, and from the Cross came the all-revealing light which showed them, what we can only see in a dim light, the merit of this wonderful gift of the Holy Mass. No Mass that has ever been said by a human priest could have been as acceptable as that offered by St. John and Our Blessed Mother at Ephesus.
The thick, votive candles spluttering in the morning breeze. the noise of dripping candle-grease, the echo of my voice coming back from the natural sounding board of the rocky cave, and the statue of Our Lady looking down from her niche, all added to the background of this wonderful experience. I felt that Our Lady was present at my Mass that morning, praying it for me, and before I began the opening psalm I invited St. John the Evangelist to help me to say it well. There were no distractions that blessed morning, and at her name I lifted my heart in exultation and gratitude as I bowed my head in reverence.
So too at the list of the Saints in the Canon I paused at the mention of St. John the Evangelist to greet him and thank him for his presence by my side at the altar. During my thanksgiving I asked Our Lady of Lourdes, as my special request, that I might become less unworthy to invite her each morning to pray the Mass with me throughout the years that remain of my priesthood. That was also the favour and blessing I asked for all my friends that morning at the Memento for the Living. With my hands joined and head bowed I recalled by name the many I wished to mention then, and for them, and for the others whose names I omitted, I prayed for a deeper love of the Holy Mass, and that Mary would accompany them to Mass, kneel beside them, and keep them busy during this most precious half-hour on earth.
At my farewell visit to the Grotto as I kissed the rock at Our Lady’s feet, and moved slowly behind the little altar, my prayer was a petition for faith, and more faith in the mystery of the Mass. Following that simple, pious custom of the peasants of Massabieille in kissing the rock hallowed by the feet of Our Lady, I asked her to grant me as a souvenir of Lourdes that I should try to recapture the intention and rekindle the zeal which I experienced in the Mass I said at her Grotto, and that she should grant a like blessing to my friends and to my parishioners.