Lourdes at 150: 'A Place of Hope'

No matter how special the place is, go there 60 or more times and you're bound to get sick of it or at least once have an uneventful, even boring experience. However, if the place is as special as Lourdes, the person as boundless in energy and faith as Marie Romagnano, RN, and, it's a Jubilee Year, there's no possibility of tedium. Ennui takes a powder, outracing banality to the dust heap. Excitement, experience, and possibility move in.

Nurse Marie, founder and director of Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, is the person the holy man must have had in mind when he presented the world this riddle:

One day a man goes to river and wades in. The next day the same man goes to the same river - only it's a different man and a different river. How is this so?

It is so because each moment presents new opportunities, a fresh experience of reality that grows probabilities like a root ball grows tendrils. Nurse Marie journeyed to Lourdes on Feb. 6 and attended Feb. 11 ceremonies that marked 150 years to the day the Blessed Mother appeared to a teen-aged Bernadette Soubirous. We were fortunate to catch up with Marie via phone in Lourdes on the special day, which drew 70,000 pilgrims from all over the world.

So Forlorn a Place, So Unlikely a Person
The day dawned with clear skies and warmed to a pleasant 65° F. Most Rev. Jacques Perrier, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, celebrated Mass from 9:30 to 11, then led a procession to the grotto at Massabielle ("Big Rock"), where Mary appeared 18 times to Bernadette beginning Feb. 11, 1858.

At the grotto, hundreds of bishops and clergy and tens of thousands of pilgrims participated in a special remembrance of the monumental event that began in so humble a way in so improbable a place to the least likely of persons. So humble a way? The apparitions began when Bernadette and two friends searched for firewood. So improbable a place? Massabielle was a deserted, forlorn location used by the town as a garbage dump. So unlikely a person? Bernadette was an uneducated, undersized peasant girl from a family so poor they were living in a former jail.

In his homily, Bishop Perrier likened Mary's presence at Lourdes to that of the wedding feast at Cana, the occasion for Jesus' first public miracle. At Cana, Mary perceived the great misfortune and embarrassment of the wedding family when they ran out of wine. At Lourdes, Mary sees the misfortunes of life in this world, this veil of tears. She also knows the expectations we have for our lives in this place of suffering. In both locations, Our Lady intercedes before her Son, asking Jesus to change water into wine at Cana and bringing Bernadette to the Eucharist at Lourdes.

'Do Whatever He Tells You'
"At Cana," Bishop Perrier said, "Mary told the stewards to 'do whatever He tells you.' " At Lourdes, Mary reiterates the same message for a more modern and contemporary world. "The message of Lourdes is [the same as] the message of the Gospel. We need prayer, penance, and an opening of the heart to God."

Thanks to the miracle of the wine, the bishop said, "the meal becomes a true wedding banquet and serves as a sign of alliance among the newlyweds, their families, and their guests. Likewise, Lourdes is also a place of alliance, which is another word for reconciliation."

After the service at the grotto, Nurse Marie said, Bishop Perrier was "lovingly mindful of the huge contingent of the sick. He was very tender toward them, and to many, he imparted special blessings."

When asked what it meant to her to be in Lourdes on the Jubilee anniversary day, Marie did not reply. The phone line went silent, long enough that I had to ask if she was still there. Then I heard a soft, muted cry. Marie Romagnano, who always seems to have the right words to say to others, was for the moment left speechless before her own experience. Then it hit me. Here am I, a writer doing this interview over the phone and hearing a heart overflow with joy to the point of tears from thousands of miles away. What a world. What a moment.

Finally, Nurse Marie managed a whisper, "There are no words."

"You're wrong Marie," I replied. "The silence and tears ARE your words."

That seemed to relieve her, and then the words arrived, like an old ally.

A Visit without Precedent
"I can't believe I've had the privilege of being here today," Nurse Marie said. "It's so special. There are so many doctors and nurses here, so many caregivers, sincerely and lovingly taking care of the sick. It's such an inspiration. It makes it clear to me that what I'm doing, nursing, is what the Lord wants me to do with my life. The Lord has a plan.

"I'm just a tiny person in that plan," Marie continued. "From what I experienced in Lourdes today, I feel a complete spiritual renewal, and my personal commitment to my vocation is renewed as well. The Lord uses us [doctors, nurses, and caregivers] to be His head, hands, and heart in caring for the sick. My pilgrimage here has been a renewal of the privilege I have in being a nurse, a reaffirmation, really."

All her pilgrimages to Lourdes, which she estimates to be more than 60 visits over the past 25 years, have been unique, Nurse Marie said. She's never felt that any two trips have been the same. Even with that, to participate in the anniversary on the spot where Mary appeared and 150 years after the exact moment - well, it has no precedent.

Nurse Marie, author of Nursing with the Hands of Jesus: A Guide to Nurses for Divine Mercy, is registered in Lourdes as a nurse volunteer. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professional volunteer their time by the hundreds to minister to the sick at one of the world's most popular pilgrimage sites. The grounds of the shrine include six large medically equipped hostels, each holding from 500 to 800 people. The floors of the buildings are "country specific," each devoted to the sick from a particular nation, for example, Italy on one floor, Ireland on the next, Sweden on the one above that and so on.

Nurse Marie said she was "overwhelmed" by the outpouring of merciful, loving care shown by the volunteers to the sick, particularly the "hundreds of doctors and nurses here." She mentioned how blessed she feels to be a nurse.

I commented, "It's a lucky patient who gets you as a nurse."

"No," she answered. "I'm the one who's privileged to be with my patients. Each one is special to me, because I believe the Lord chooses my patients. He brings certain people into my care at a given time for a certain reason. I may not know the reason and usually don't. That's okay. I don't need to know. That's why it's so special to be a nurse dedicated to God. It's not a job. It's a vocation. Look at the Gospel message. What did Jesus do the most? He healed the sick. The sick are His first priority. The sick should also be our first priority, both the sick in body and the sick in spirit."

Healed in Body and Soul
Marie said she had seen numerous examples of heroic courage on the part of caregivers. Mentioning one, she referred to "a man I met yesterday, who has been volunteering at Lourdes for 50 years. He said he was here to help take care of the sick - feed them, bathe them, bring them to the shrine, or just put a cold cloth on a fevered brow."

She describes her 60-plus pilgrimages as "wonderful times of prayer, filled with incredible happiness at seeing [the work of] my colleagues in healthcare and witnessing the tremendous hope the Lord's message brings to every single patient. In all this, Our Lady is our No. 1 intercessor. Her presence gives us a way to ask more and more of her in bringing us closer to Jesus. In this way, we can be healed in body and soul."

Marie stressed that healing needs to be understood in a broader sense, not just physical healing but also spiritual restoration: "When we talk healing, it includes the physical, of course, but also the spiritual. Without question, everyone who comes here is comforted and encouraged in some way, and each in a unique way. If you try to reduce Lourdes to, 'You take a bath, that's the end of it, and then the pilgrim leaves' you miss the point. No, Lourdes is a complete spiritual experience. It's a place of hope."

Pope Grants Plenary Indulgence
Since 1858, more than 7,000 people have reported healings from the waters of Lourdes. In conjunction with the Catholic Church, the Lourdes Medical Bureau examines all miraculous claims. To date, 67 healings are recognized as scientifically unexplainable. That's an average of one miraculous healing every 14 months.

To honor the 150th Jubilee Year, Pope Benedict XVI has approved a plenary indulgence. This special dispensation will be granted pilgrims who visit the apparition site in France anytime until Dec. 8, 2008. Pilgrims receive the indulgence by going to confession near the time of their pilgrimage, receiving Holy Communion, and praying for the intentions of the Pope.

Day after day they will come to Lourdes this year, each pilgrim with an individual purpose requiring an individual healing. Each one of the 8 million expected visitors in the Jubilee Year, though, will share in common the need for a spiritual cure, the baseline of all genuine transformation. Each one, in his or her way, receives the cure. Thus, Lourdes is individual in the approach, collective in the experience. Out of the one, many.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" for thedivinemercy.org and is a frequent contributor to marian.org.

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