PHOTO BY JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.
was once described
as the “Disneyland of
the Catholic Church,”
as “God’s Magic Kingdom,”
I replied that it is
the complete opposite. Disneyland is a
commercial enterprise where joy and
pleasure are manufactured and paid
for. Lourdes is about generosity of spirit
where true joy is found in giving time
and loving service freely to the sick
and those in need.
At the heart of Lourdes stands an
encounter of love between a child
and a mother, between Bernadette
Soubirous and Mary, Mother of God
and our mother. That meeting forever
changed the face of a small French village
and reawakened the spiritual yearnings
of people, making Lourdes a
worldwide center of pilgrimage.
In 1858, with a population of little
more than 3,000, Lourdes was an
obscure village amid the Pyrenees in
southwestern France. Among its poorest
citizens were members of the
Soubirous family. With his wife, Louise,
and their four children, Francois
Soubirous, a miller by trade, had fallen
upon hard times. In 1857 they were
forced to live in the Cachot, an abandoned
On Thursday, February 11, 1858, life
changed dramatically and decisively
for Bernadette. On a cold, damp day,
her simple search for firewood initiated
an amazing encounter with
heaven. Bernadette, her sister Toinette
and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, were
searching for firewood. At a rocky recess
in a place known as Massabielle, where
the river currents washed up driftwood
and other debris, Bernadette had a
vision that left an indelible imprint on
her heart and began the story that is
In this grotto she saw a “Lady dressed
in white with a blue sash and a yellow
rose on each foot, the color of her
rosary.” Who the “Lady” was became
the subject of much debate. There were
18 apparitions in all, the last one occurring
on July 16, 1858.
As news reached the townspeople
and neighboring districts, people
flocked to the grotto. With the discovery
of a spring of water, and the news
of healings taking place, the crowds
For Bernadette it was a time of private
ecstasy and public hell. She was mocked
and ridiculed by some. A 14-year-old
illiterate child, she was hounded by
police and local authorities, interrogated
and even threatened with prison.
In the face of this adversity, she remained
steadfast. Even the local priest,
the Abbé Peyramale, who was skeptical
at first, eventually believed her.
He became convinced when, at the
ninth apparition on March 25, the Feast
of the Annunciation, the “Lady” said,
“I am the Immaculate Conception.” Peyramale knew that a poor, uneducated
child with no formal religious
training or doctrinal knowledge could
never have invented such a title—a
dogma only proclaimed by the Church
After four years of stringent Church
investigation, the clear evidence of
Bernadette’s credibility and many cases
of inexplicable healing, the local
bishop, in a pastoral letter dated January
18, 1862, declared, “Truly, the
Blessed Virgin Mary did appear to
Bernadette remained in Lourdes until
1866 when she joined the Sisters of
Charity and Christian Learning at Nevers
in northern France. She remained
there until her death on April 16, 1879.
God Loves and Cares for Us
The message of Lourdes is a gospel message.
In all of the exchanges between
Our Lady and Bernadette at Massabielle,
Mary calls humanity to rediscover
the Good News that God loves
and cares for us. No matter who we
are, Christ is there for us.
Lourdes represents the Gospel message
of a Father who lovingly waits for
the prodigal’s return. It is a story of the
Son who shows us the way home, a
message of conversion and mission,
helping us witness to the way of Jesus
in the Church and in the world.
Lourdes is about the pilgrimage we
make through life with God, in God
and to God.
Through the years Lourdes has often
become synonymous with the physically
sick. There is certainly a message
of great hope and consolation for them
and for the handicapped. There have
indeed been well-documented miraculous
cures. We should not be afraid to
pray for physical healing. That is an
act of faith in a Jesus who came “to
save the lost and the sick.”
The message of Lourdes, however,
goes far beyond physical healing. Our
Lady brings about in us a healing of the
heart, where Jesus most wants to touch
us all. “Our hearts know no rest until
they rest in you,” wrote St. Augustine.
If we come to the same conclusion,
then we will discover the true meaning
In 1985 I was appointed chaplain in
Lourdes for the English-speaking pilgrims
and served for 10 years, a great
blessing in my life. It was a gracious gift of a merciful and loving God who, in
bringing me to Lourdes, gave me new
life, new hope and a new mission.
The story of my coming to Lourdes
began when I was a young missionary
priest in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo. At the entrance to our mission
there was a huge statue of Our
Lady of Lourdes. I noticed that a poor
African man stumbled up to that statue
each day. He could barely walk or speak,
his arms were completely paralyzed
and his eyes were fixed in a strange
trance. Some members of his tribe had
poisoned him in an act of revenge. My
heart was filled with pity as I saw him
limping along the road toward Mary.
Little did I realize that soon I too would
be limping along the road toward Mary.
I became very ill in the Congo. Over
a two-year period this sudden and serious
illness worsened. Physical suffering
accompanied a nightmare of pain and
frustration. I vacillated between hope
and almost utter despair, feeling abandoned
by the Lord.
In this moment of impasse, God’s
mercy touched my life. I was healed
and eventually became chaplain for
the English-speaking pilgrims.
On January 7, she is born at the Boly Mill (Lourdes) and is baptized two days later.
Cholera sweeps through Lourdes, killing many. Stricken by the disease, Bernadette almost dies but instead is left with asthma for the rest of her life.
Unable to pay their rent, the Soubirous family moves into an abandoned jail. Bernadette temporarily works on a farm in a nearby village.
In January, Bernadette rejoins her family. Between February 11 and July 16, the Blessed Virgin Mary appears to Bernadette 18 times at the grotto of Massabielle.
Bishop Laurence ratifies the authenticity of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette.
Bernadette goes to the Convent of St. Gillard in Nevers, a town in northern France. She takes the religious habit and is given the name of Sister Marie-Bernard.
Bernadette dies on April 16.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Bernadette is canonized.
This year marks the 150th anniversary
of the appearance of Our Lady to
Bernadette. This remarkable and moving
story remains perennially valid
because it touches the hearts and shapes
the lives of countless people. Lourdes is
a message for our time, for every time.
Giving People the Message
In a television interview, when asked
what I would say to those who have
doubts about the story and message of
Lourdes, I repeated Bernadette’s reply to
her contemporaries: “My job is just to
give you the message. It’s up to you
whether you believe it or not.”
Whether we believe or not is indeed
for us to decide. This reflects the freedom
that God gave us and deeply
respects. God imposes nothing. Perhaps
our real problem is not so much
in believing as in hearing the divine
message in the first place.
“Would you be so kind as to come
here?” These were the words of Our
Lady to Bernadette at the third apparition.
These strikingly courteous and homely words are not a command but
an invitation to leave everything else
aside and come spend time with Mary.
Bernadette could accept or reject the
Of course, who could ever refuse
such an invitation from Our Lady?
Given such a request, would we ever
dream of refusing it? Of course not.
And yet we do, and often.
The appeal made to Bernadette is
one made to us daily. Repeatedly the
Lord calls to each of us, “Would you be
so kind as to come here?” “Would you
leave everything else aside and just be
with me?” It is the constant invitation
to pray, to enter the world of God’s
In many ways, both subtle and blunt,
we ignore or refuse to hear this request.
We are too busy with ourselves to think
of the “Father’s affairs” (Luke 2:49). We
are too busy being the Lord ourselves to
allow someone else to be the center of
attention—too busy dreaming of life
elsewhere to live it differently now.
Lourdes appeals once more. In the
image of Mary and Bernadette at the
grotto, we see what prayer is made of.
It is not the babbling of pagans “who
think that they will be heard because of
their many words” (Matthew 6:7) but
rather an encounter between two
hearts. Real prayer goes beyond reciting
words to become a union of two people
in an embrace of love.
Seeing With the 'Eyes of Faith'
This is the prayer we are called to live—
not prayer for the saints alone, but for
everyone. This is not blind submission
to a remote, omnipotent power or a
vain search for an unknown God. What
is offered is the humble quest of a God
who, in the person of Jesus, comes to
reveal the love of the Trinity and beg
our love in return.
Prayer is being plunged into this community of love that is the Trinity.
Surrounded by love, we feel at home
there. Prayer is not so much what we
give to God but is more a living with
God, a “meeting of one friend with
another.” In this personal relationship
God gives himself for us poor sinners.
“How happy I was, O good mother,
to have the grace to gaze upon you,” Bernadette said in reflecting upon her
time spent with the Blessed Virgin. True
prayer is this constant gazing, this looking
upon, this being with, this faithful
contemplation of God’s beauty and
goodness. That is what Bernadette experienced.
We are often told in the Gospels that
Jesus left the crowds and went off to a
lonely place to pray, or that he spent
the night in prayer. What about all the
people waiting to be healed, consoled,
encouraged and guided? Why does he
leave them to go and pray, to be with
his Father? Because everything flows
from the powerful relationship of love
Jesus has with the Father and the Spirit.
Prayer is the source of all—of his healing,
compassion, gentleness, peace and
understanding. Prayer brings us within
that same powerful current of love.
We live in a world that has become
very competitive, hard, violent, ruthless,
cold and impersonal. It has little
room for softness, tenderness and compassion.
The workplace, the home, even
the Church can be so at times. That is
why prayer is so important. We cannot
come before the heart of a God of
warmth and tenderness while remaining
In prayer, God’s love melts away the
hardness. We cannot bring people to
God in prayer and relate to them the
same way. Prayer must make us more
thoughtful, more sensitive, more caring.
We find ourselves with God in a heart-to-heart encounter; loving and allowing
ourselves to be loved. This is the
secret of every Christian open to the
Good News of Jesus Christ, the secret of
all who say yes to the gentle appeal, “Would you be so kind as to come here?”
When we answer that request, we
experience, as Bernadette did, that we
are embraced within that sacred community
of love that is Father, Son and
Only the “eyes of faith” can help us
see the precious gift of life, the precious
gift of love. Only the “eyes of the
heart,” enlightened by the Spirit, can
open us to welcome and embrace each
other as People of God, as one family
of the same Father.
Before the unknown, we are afraid.
Before an unfamiliar “young Lady,”
Bernadette was afraid. Fear made her
reach for her rosary beads. As she made
the Sign of the Cross, she began to feel
at ease. The Sign of the Cross invokes the
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity,
a community of love without fear.
Prayer involves being plunged into
this community of love where, surrounded
by love, we feel at home. It
brings us not the false illusions of happiness
offered by this world, but the
true happiness of the “other world”
promised to Bernadette. Not compensation
in the hereafter for a painful
earthly life, this joy of love transforms
everything here and now, making happiness
possible whatever the circumstances.
A sick person in Lourdes once
said, “Hell is not to suffer; it is to suffer
In prayer we find ourselves with God
in a heart-to-heart encounter, loving
and allowing ourselves to be loved.
This is the secret of every Christian
open to the Good News of Jesus Christ,
the secret of all who say yes to the gentle
appeal, “Would you do me the favor
of coming here?”
This reprint is excerpted from The
Miracle of Lourdes: A Message of Healing
and Hope, by John Lochran (St.
Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).
A Peasant's Prayer
“I DIDN’T KNOW the Rosary could be such a beautiful prayer. I always thought it was a prayer for peasants,” a pilgrim to Lourdes told me. The illiterate Bernadette is the one chosen by God to tell the wise and learned of this world about the Rosary, a school where the deeper mysteries of life can be learned. This is her peasant’s prayer, the school of her heart.
To a mere child, the Rosary became a school revealing all the wonders of God’s love. It enabled her to read the mystery of God’s love for her and to write her response through the events of daily life. The Rosary was her dictionary, her spelling book, naming and explaining the mysteries of God’s Kingdom; it was a map guiding her to the heart of God’s love for humanity.
The mysteries of the Rosary opened to Bernadette the magnitude of Jesus’ merciful love for humankind. The mysteries are stages of a journey through life. They are a path of the life that Jesus follows from the Annunciation of his birth to his Ascension into heaven. It is a pilgrimage of faith that Jesus makes with the Father, a journey through the desert of the sinful world of humankind toward the Promised Land of his Father’s love.
It is the way for everyone, the journey, the pilgrimage that we all have to make toward the heart of the living God. On every step of the journey Jesus makes, Mary is there with him.
To ponder the Rosary’s mysteries, to enroll in the school of Mary, to find there a new understanding of who Jesus is and what he means to us—this is to share the prayer of the poor and the humble, the prayer of the heart, a peasant’s prayer.
Father John Lochran, chaplain to the English-speaking
pilgrims to Lourdes between 1985 and
1995, is now a parish priest in Wales. Many physical
cures have found the approval of the Church. He
asserts, however, that the message of Lourdes speaks
above all of the healing of the heart, of a deeper spiritual
healing that allows God’s love to touch the
whole person, bringing the abundance of life that
Jesus wants for us. He has written The Grotto Was
My Heaven (Columba, 1993) and Springs of Living
Water: Reflections on the Message of Lourdes (Columba, 1996).