It would not be uncommon to find Christians who would pour scorn on the 5,000,000 people who visit St. Bernadette’s grotto in this Pyrenees town, tucked in under the mountains and site of Catholicism most famous pilgrimage.
Many European Christian sects turned against the Roman Church’s adoration of Saints, worshiping of relics and belief in miracles during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Though many Europeans didn’t, clinging firmly to Rome’s brand of religious mysticism, which is on show in all its glory in Lourdes.
Lourdes’s primary attraction is a natural spring, which is said to have holy properties. It is situated inside a grotto or cave and was revealed to a 14-year-old shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858, by none other than the Virgin Mary – the mother of Jesus.
Pilgrims come to the grotto, now more a nook in the foundations of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to pray, worship and collect the waters, literally by the bucket full.
Along the Rue de la Grotte, which runs down a steep hill from McDonalds in the city center to the Sanctuaries (holy places), row upon row of shops sell empty water containers from 10 litres to the very small, including many in the shape of the Virgin Mary.
Pilgrims collect the water from communal taps next to the grotto, some filling dozens of small bottles, no doubt to be distributed as souvenirs when they return home.
It was not as offensive as the guide books led me to believe. One described Rue de la Grotte as, “the busiest tourist souk this side of Marrakech . Anyway, commerce has a special link with all pilgrimages I would think, as the faithful have a higher purpose than to worry about their daily bread.
As I joined the hundreds of pedestrians weaving their way along Rue de la Grotte through the traffic and past the retailers, who were not hassling pilgrims to buy crucifixes or St. Bernadette figures, I began to sense an energy amongst the crowd, a cheerfulness that you wouldn’t usually associate amongst the bustle of a crowded street.
Rue de la Grotte opens onto Rosary Square, from where two huge wings wrap the square in the Basilica’s bosom. The wings surrounding the square are ramps and where they join a giant golden crown tops the church’s entrance.
Below this golden crown I met a group of young people from the northern English city of Leeds. They were part of a group of 400 pilgrims, who seemed elderly and confined to wheel chairs or bright, blond and groomed. All dressed in yellow polo shirts with a commemorative crest.
The Leeds Dioceses organises the pilgrimage each year and teams the Church’s youth clubs with the elderly for a tour that is as much about sharing faith as it is about miracles.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes that 68 miracles have occurred at Lourdes, all associated with the healing of the sick.
Hopeful pilgrims set out at a clip towards the Sanctuaries each morning following breakfast. Many of the elderly are in wheel chairs, a combination of both personal mobility, comfort and crowd management. It would be inappropriate to describe the Sanctuaries as a theme park, though I estimate the area covers some 100 hectares and the information brochure lists 75 places of interest to pilgrims, from the obvious holy sites to meeting rooms, youth service, lost property and the Lourdes radio station which transmits Mass daily at 3 pm around the world.
I don’t believe there is any set order of religious observations at Lourdes, though pilgrimage seems governed by the Church’s timetable. Baths in the holy waters are available in the morning and afternoon, Mass in various languages is celebrated throughout the day, and the sacrament of reconciliation is also available each day in the mornings and afternoon. Pilgrims can follow Jesus’ foot steps through Jerusalem to his crucifixion, each evening there is a torchlight procession and a short film – The Story of Lourdes and the life of St. Bernadette – is shown during the day.
Lourdes has more hotel rooms than any city in France outside of Paris. It holds a special place for Catholics and my own parents kept a liter bottle of Lourdes water in their wardrobe. This is the thing about religion. It all appears very whacky to those on the outside, but perfectly normal to those who share its traditions. And at Lourdes the bathing of the sick, the chanting and torchlight processions is without a doubt religious tourism but it is also a great place to wash away those earthly sins.