“Would you do me the kindness of coming here?”
This is the invitation that Mary extended to Bernadette in the Grotto at Lourdes in 1858, asking her to meet there for 15 days. This invitation is offered to every person, even 157 years later because Lourdes isn’t about an apparition, it’s not about a girl who was first ridiculed, then praised. It’s about a Mother reaching out to her children to do what moms do best: love, guide, and heal their children.
Millions of people accept this invitation each year and come to Lourdes for a wide variety of reasons. Some people saved up their whole lives to make this trip while others aren’t even sure they have a faith anymore, and then there are the volunteers who keep the sanctuaries running. This includes everything from the daily Masses, transportation from the train station, hospitality, the nightly candlelit rosary processions, and much more.
I first accepted this invitation about 4 years ago when I had the opportunity to spend a week serving the pilgrims in the Piscines, the spring water baths that Lourdes is so well known for. Of course, Lourdes is also known for the many miracles that have occurred as a result of traveling on pilgrimage there.
Actually, the first question I was always asked after returning from Lourdes was, “Did you see any healings? Did you witness any miracles?” And I always said yes. No, I didn’t see anyone jump out of their wheelchair or see cancer disappear right before my eyes. What I did see was hundreds of women enter the Piscines full of doubt, hurt, and fear, and with a little openness receive peace after decades of bitter anger and discomfort while carrying the burden of a sick child. There were countless tears and smiles and a tangible joy in everyone. The perfect word for Lourdes is paix, pace, paz, peace.
You know what I wasn’t counting on from that week? My own growth. I could honestly write pages about everything I learned and the ways I was changed in those seven days, and it took me completely by surprise. I was so focused on making sure all my actions were for the pilgrims to make their time in Lourdes a perfect retreat that I was completely blindsided by all of the fruitfulness that I received.
It was the quintessential example of the paradox of Christianity: the more you give, the more you receive. Every day was physically and emotionally draining, but I never felt more alive spending every ounce of my energy for these women.
I was able to return to Lourdes for 3 weeks this summer and it felt like coming home. I was prepared for the graces waiting for me this time! And sure enough, in those three weeks my relationship with both Mary and Bernadette continued to deepen. My love for each and every pilgrim of Lourdes grew to such immensity that I bet my heart looked like the Grinch’s when it grows too big for him to contain.
If I had to name a “theme” for those three weeks, it would be family. Every day was a reminder that I was serving my brothers and sisters and serving with them. Maybe there were many different specific reasons we came, but it all boiled down to an invitation.
So again, today isn’t about just Mary. It’s about each of us being called back to God through Mary, reaching out to each other, and remembering that our Mother is constantly inviting us to a life of peace.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
St. Bernadette, pray for us.