There are only two possible explanations for the phenomenon of Lourdes, for anyone who engages with it seriously and does not immediately dismiss it as one of those crazy Catholic miracle places. Either the Catholic faithful, flocking here by the tens of millions, are credulous numbskulls or there is something in this village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees that deserves special attention.
I'm not even talking about miracles. Unquestionably, there have been medical miracles at Lourdes documented by the proper authorities. For example, there is the story of Caroline Esserteau, engraved in grateful testimony on the walls of the original church here:
A ma mère bien-aimée, Notre Dame de Lourdes, Caroline Esserteau, atteinte d'une affection chronique de la moelle épinière et frappée d'une paralysie des membres inférieurs devenue ascendant, aux incurables de l'hospice de Niort depuis le 11 Février 1870 et guérie subitement à Lourdes le 2 Juillet 1873.
Which is to say that a woman with paralysis of the legs caused by an infection of the spine, who had been committed to a home for incurables, was suddenly made well at Lourdes three years later. For which she thanked her "beloved mother," Our Lady of Lourdes.
What moved me during my second visit to the home of St. Bernadette Soubirous are not the miracles, but the human witnesses here. Especially the male witnesses on display this weekend. My two fathers would have loved to be at Lourdes for the International Military Pilgrimage, an annual event since 1958. (My two fathers are my pastor, Fr. David Barnes, once a military chaplain; and my biological father, David Bull, a devout Protestant and World War II veteran with a passion for military history. Dad would have just ate this up.)
I don't know about you, but I think of Marian apparitions like those at Lourdes and Fatima and Medjugorje as phenomena that appeal to women more than to men. I don't want to get myself in trouble with the PC authorities by saying why I think so — whether PC means politically correct or properly Catholic. But what I want to know, Mr. Skeptic, is, what do you do with 15,000 men in uniform (with a few women added) singing hymns to Mary as entire battalions, or lining up to take baths in the healing waters of Lourdes, as so many did with me this morning? Are these rough and ready men, who think on their feet in the defense of their homelands, just gullible dolts?
St. Bernadette, a poor uneducated shepherd girl, saw visions of a beautiful woman in white, who identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. The woman told Bernadette to dig in the earth of a grotto that the townspeople used as a garbage dump, and the girl unearthed a spring. That spring has continued to flow and today its waters are made available to those faitherful who can endure waiting in lines up to three hours long, stripping naked (in suprroundings that beautifully preserve their modesty), and immersing themselves in a bath of very cold water, while praying to the Blessed Mother for a special intention.
Marian and I attended the French Mass in the crypt of the old church this morning at 7:00 and by 7:45 we were in separate lines at the baths. (Men and women take the baths separately.) The able-bodied wait on benches, while les malades go to the head of the line on crutches or stretchers, or in wheelchairs. Children also go to the head of the line, always accompanied by an adult family member of the same sex.
In line ahead of me were a couple dozen members of a Congolese delegation to the military pilgrimage. They wore specially designed fatigues covered with radiant sunbursts in blue, yellow, and carmine. Some of these uniforms were adorned on their backs with an image of the Virgin of Lourdes, and all were printed with the first words of the Magnificat in several languages: "My Soul Praise the Lord . . . Mon Ame Exalte Le Seigneur."
While we waited a group of nuns led both sides, men and women, in the rosary in French, and as I sat opposite the men from Congo, it was moving to me to see their lips move with the Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
Because we were about 150 men from several dozen nations all gathered together in one place, there were man behavior and man jokes on display from time to time, little islands of fun in long stretches of seemly solemnity. Just ahead of me in line were three gentlemen from Naples, two of middle age and, furthest along ahead of me, an 80-year-old. One of the younger men asked me if I had visited Italy, and when I told him yes — Venice, Rome, Florence, Genoa — he pulled a long face and asked why not Napoli? I shrugged an apology and he made some wild gesture with his thumb and face to indicate that Napoli is the bomb.
Then he asked where I was from, and when I said Boston, he didn't reply directly but only said, "Chicago." Then made the universal gesture of a mobster firing a machine gun.
When we finally got inside the bathhouse, there were four of us at the head of the queue: the old man from Napoli, the two younger men, then me. A French official came along and made a gentle, typically French gesture beseeching the old man to slide a few inches further along his bench, to make room for those coming in behind us. The old Italian looked at the Frenchman incredulously. The French official repeated the gesture and the Italian repeated the look. Finally, on the third gesture, the Italian gave up and slid three inches to his right, then, as the Frenchman turned his back, the Italian unleashed a flood of invective, while smiling the whole time. The younger men laughed, all three of them evidently outraged at the characteristic stupidity of the Frenchman while pretending that their outrage was greater than in fact it was.
Then the curtain parted and the old Italian responded to a new gesture from another Frenchman. He slipped inside the curtain to the baths, and his encounter with the Blessed Mother began. Soon I was in front of Our Lady of Lourdes myself, and with my own intention.