by Bebe Kennedy
For many Catholics, “Lourdes water” is a treasured gift, offering the hope of spiritual and physical well-being through the intercession of Mary. Lourdes, France, the site where Our Lady appeared eighteen times in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous, an impoverished, illiterate fourteen-year-old, is among the pre-eminent destinations for Catholic travelers. It has been estimated that approximately 200 million pilgrims and tourists have visited the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes since 1860, and the shrine now attracts about five million annually. I have been privileged to visit Lourdes several times, most recently as a member of the Order of Malta, whose global associations sponsor an annual seven-day pilgrimage on behalf of more than one thousand “Malades” (French for sick persons).
The Order of Malta is an ancient, worldwide, Roman Catholic lay religious order dedicated to defending the faith and providing direct service and aid to the sick and the poor. An Introduction to The Order of Malta explains, “The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, known more commonly as The Order of Malta, is an organization with a rich, complex history dating back to the year 1099, and even earlier. It was formed as a hospitaller order and religious order, and later became a military force during the Crusades. For hundreds of years its hospitals were the most advanced in the world. Today it is an international relief agency, and remains a lay religious order of the Roman Catholic Church.” As a sovereign entity, it maintains diplomatic relations with more than 81 countries, and has status at the United Nations as Permanent Observer. The order has about 13,000 members and operates in more than 120 countries.
A signature event for the organization is the Lourdes pilgrimage. Every year, in the first week of May (Mary’s month), Malta groups from all over the world, comprised of Knights and Dames of Malta, auxiliaries, clergy, medical teams, volunteers, and the Malades and their caregivers, participate in this act of service. Activities include Masses, spiritual talks and reflections, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, healing baths, anointing of the sick, Stations of the Cross, a beautiful evening candlelight procession, and camaraderie.
While some Malades are capable of self-care, most are not and are accompanied by their caregivers. These sick and suffering also receive emotional support and service from designated Knights and Dames to whom they’re assigned throughout the pilgrimage. It is in these grace-filled relationships that the true spirit of the order is experienced.
Indeed, the spiritual transcendence of Lourdes was made evident both by the inner radiance and joy of the Malades, which shone through despite their ill health, and by the magnanimous spirit of love and charity manifested by those affiliated with this undertaking. One individual who captivated me by this spirit was Kingsley, a young man, wheel-chair bound and paralyzed from the waist down. I engaged him in conversation, curious about his upbeat demeanor, and his visible vigor and strength of personality. He readily and calmly told his story. Three years previously, at a barbecue with friends and family, a guest invited by a friend became violent, resulting in Kingsley’s injury from a random gunshot.
Despite this horrible, personal tragedy, Kingsley remained positive, in fact joyful. He has turned his impairment over to God, has been spiritually strengthened since the unfortunate incident, and has forgiven the perpetrator. There was no evidence of bitterness, and he is grateful for his life, having been told by medical personnel that it was a miracle he even survived the shot.
Kingsley’s faith is strong, supported by family, friends, and Church. He is persistent in his effort to walk again, and expects to receive a degree in biomedical engineering this year. Kingsley exemplifies the Biblical passage: “… for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).
In the eyes of the world, Kingsley may be atypical in his attitude, but this was not the case with the sick at Lourdes. A bishop participating in the pilgrimage told the story of a man with late-stage cancer. Following a Mass at Lourdes, the cancer victim told him that he had been healed. While there had been no physical cure, the man explained to the surprised bishop that he was spiritually healed during the bishop’s homily he was no longer afraid to die. A few weeks later he went to the Lord in peace.
The time spent at this sacred shrine should be in the context of a holy pilgrimage, immersed in the healing spirit of this Sanctuary. One becomes rapt, even overwhelmed, by the manifest, deep faith and hope of those seeking the divine intercession of Our Lady. In gratitude and devotion, we should take care to heed Mary’s message to Bernadette, to pray and do penance.
During the past 150 years, many miracles have taken place at Lourdes, but regardless of whether a physical cure occurs, pilgrims leave this holy place spiritually enriched. “In Him who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything” (Philippians 4:13).
Bebe Kennedy is a retired public high school counselor from St. Louis who taught in the behavioral studies department at a local university. She has written for professional journals and has lectured widely on adolescent sexuality and pro-life issues.
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