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On a cold winter's day, Feb. 11, 1858, the Blessed Mother of God appeared to a poor 14-year-old girl in Lourdes, France, with a message. Through her apparition, the Blessed Virgin wished to call the world back to a close relationship with her divine Son, Jesus.
Despite the passage of time, Mary's messages to the young Bernadette Soubirous are as pertinent for us today as they were to the world during Bernadette's life so many years ago.
Following the many apparitions, the backwater community of Lourdes, located in the foothills of the French Pyrenees Mountains, would be transformed into a city. This transformation was largely due to a miraculous spring that Mary revealed to Bernadette during one apparition.
Mary revealed the spring to Bernadette on Thursday, Feb. 25, 1858, with 300 pilgrims looking on.
"She told me to go drink of the spring," Bernadette recounted. "I only found a little muddy water. At the fourth attempt, I was able to drink. She also made me eat the bitter herbs that were found near the spring, and then the vision left and went away."
As the crowd asked whether she had lost her mind, she replied, "It is for sinners."
As the spring began to flow in the grotto of Massabielle, the faithful who washed in its crystal clear waters found it to have miraculous qualities.
The Catholic Church officially recognizes 70 miracles associated with the waters at Massabielle as being of divine origin. But some 7,000 miracles have been attributed to God's divine intervention by the more than 200 million pilgrims who have visited the apparition site and bathed in the spring's cold waters.
As a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago, I was one of three priests that accompanied Chicago's Cdl. Francis George on the first-ever U.S. archdiocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.
The Chicago Tribune, on Aug. 3, 2008, reported that war abroad and local gang violence, as well as predators in the Catholic Church, were signs that "called Cardinal Francis George and nearly 200 Roman Catholic parishioners to the south of France this weekend."
As one of Cdl. George's emcees that week, the time I spent at Lourdes was busy assisting the cardinal. He was officiating numerous events for our Chicago pilgrims, participating in nightly processions and hearing hundreds of confessions. One evening that week, I was scheduled to be the main celebrant in an open-air Mass in front of the basilica.
But it was not to be. A super thunderstorm broke out about 15 minutes before the scheduled Mass, dispersing all the pilgrims. During the thunderstorm, just a small handful of us, including the cardinal, said a Rosary under the basilica's portal and then called it a night. My one opportunity to preach to the pilgrims never happened, nor did I get to say Mass that day.
As a pilgrim, I did not go to Lourdes to make myself known as a priest. I went to Lourdes to bathe in the waters of the miraculous spring at the grotto of Massabielle. I wanted to bathe in the waters of the spring — not to alleviate any physical ailment, but to wash away every vestige of the homosexual predation I suffered in my youth. Decades later, I still suffered from what psychologists call flashbacks, which were horribly debilitating. They persisted even after various therapies attempted to treat them.
For me, it would just take one trigger and, despite the passage of time and various treatments, I would be 11 again, in a locked car in a shuttered garage, in the dark, with a man working me over. For individuals who have not endured something along these lines, it's hard to fathom how haunting all this can be.
So as a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes, I submitted myself to our Blessed Mother's care and bathed in the waters of the spring dug by St. Bernadette. I attempted to get Cdl. George to go with me to the baths, as he was suffering from cancer at the time. But, like St. Bernadette, he refused, saying the waters of the spring were not for him. He further rationalized that, as a young priest (during a prior visit to Lourdes), he did bathe in the spring's frigid waters.
"Once was enough for a lifetime," he told me. "But, if you want to, Paul, go for it! Expect it to be one very cold bath."
On Thursday morning of that week, I asked one of my fellow pilgrims, whom I had befriended, to accompany me to the baths. To ensure we were first in line, we rose at 5 a.m., dressed and were at the gate by 5:30. At 6 a.m., the volunteers who assist pilgrims bathing in the spring's waters opened the gates. The burly Frenchmen who voluntarily man the baths ushered me to a special bath "Pour les prêtres," and my companion to the location for laymen. So much for talking a friend into accompanying me to the baths as a lifeline!
Once in the stall, I undressed down to my shorts, and then two heavily built men dunked me — all six feet two inches — into the icy water (which even in August was only about 40 degrees, coming fresh out of the mountain). Shocking does not capture what happens to your body when undergoing a dunking in this fashion. But, immediately after toweling off, I certainly felt like a new creation — having been washed clean from all the baggage of the abuse and of my personal sins.
That very day, after submitting to this strange bath, I felt restored. The innocence that had been stolen during my childhood was reinstated. The abuse was not forgotten but was no longer of consequence. The waters washed away the stain and the stink of the abuse. In the following months, I would come to realize that, after having bathed at Lourdes, I had a new freedom. I could now talk about the abuse of my youth without crumbling into an incoherent idiot. Even more surprising was the experience of total freedom from debilitating flashbacks.
Years later, I credit my transformation and restored innocence to Lourdes, with its icy bath that I had submitted to at the miraculous spring in the grotto. I also credit my healing to the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Lourdes!
COVID tyranny is now shutting down travel to Europe and planned pilgrimages. But, as a recent group of pilgrims to Lourdes showed, the site is still a place of spiritual healing and protection. While 46 of 294 pilgrims contracted COVID, not one was hospitalized or expressed any regrets in going.
So while COVID remains a problem, it's probably best for all concerned to stay home and make a Lourdes pilgrimage from your own armchair. Perhaps watch the "Song of Bernadette." And, after viewing this classic film about the apparitions at Lourdes, recite a Rosary. Recall that Our Blessed Mother has always looked out for all of her children. And know that her Son Jesus can cure all things that ail you, big and small alike.
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