The third leg of my sabbatical was to Lourdes, France, where I served as a confessor to English-speaking pilgrims. Lourdes is known the world over as a holy place of pilgrimage to seek healing and cures through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Lourdes. All of us need the healing of God’s mercy, of God’s tenderness, of God’s kindness.
I arrived on Saturday, August 31, in the late afternoon. On Saturday evening as I watched the Marian Procession with hundreds and hundreds of people carrying candles and singing “Immaculate Mary” in many different languages, the common refrain “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria” brought tears to my eyes. That refrain has been part of my life forever. I think that I have been singing “Immaculate Mary” since I was eating baby food! It is so important to have prayers and hymns that have found a way into a groove in our brains when we were five years old. Those prayers and hymns will remain with us forever and will serve us well for a lifetime.
After Sunday Mass in English on September 1, I began hearing confessions at 10 a.m. I heard confessions between four and five hours every day for three weeks. Though it can be very tiring, it is a rich blessing to hear confessions and to offer the mercy and forgiveness of God to people who come from all over the world.
Each day I went to the confessional where I had been assigned for the day and people came — people of all ages, shapes and sizes, lay people and religious and priests, people from English-speaking countries all over the world, all seeking the mercy and forgiveness of God. So many people come to confessions at Lourdes. There is a freestanding building, called the Chapel of Reconciliation. On the third floor there is a chapel named for St. John Vianney, the famous Pastor of Ars who heard confessions 18 hours a day. (I have no idea how he did it.) On the second floor confessions are heard in Italian and German. On the first floor, confessions are heard in English, Spanish, Dutch and French. The Italians are the largest group of pilgrims in Lourdes. There are Italians everywhere. In fact, before the euro was adopted in many European countries, Italians could pay for anything in Lourdes with lira. And I was quite at home talking Italian with the cashier in the grocery store!
I forget how much of the world speaks English. I usually think of the United States and England and Ireland. I heard confessions from pilgrims from India, Sri Lanka, Wales, the Philippines, Sydney, Singapore, Indonesia, Scotland, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Goa, Uganda, Canada and other countries. English is just one of the many languages that are heard at the sanctuary. I have never been in a more international place than the grotto at Lourdes. The power of Mary to draw people from all over the world . . .
I had lots of people from Ireland come to confession. Sometimes I had to fight chuckling because their brogue sounds just like the people in the U.S. who tell jokes about the Irish. And they have certain phrases that we don’t use. A woman told me that she gave her mother-in-law “cheek.” In the course of the conversation I realized that this meant that she talked back to her mother-in-law. There are many other such phrases. Part of my exhaustion after hearing confessions for five hours came from listening to English spoken with so many different accents and inflections. And when there was no one waiting to go to confession in English, I would hear confessions in Spanish . . . and even in Italian.
Photos by Father Joe Corpora
People come to confession and from the depths of their hearts pour out their pain and sorrow. Anger with God . . . I’m so angry with God because my husband of 61 years has dementia and no longer knows me. Anger with oneself . . . I feel so badly, Father, that I promised the Holy Mother if she would bless me with a child that I would come to Lourdes right away to give her thanks. But that was two years ago. I should have come sooner. Feeling betrayed by God . . . God has taken everything from me. I have nothing left to cling to, not even my faith. Remorse . . . I am at the end of my life and I’ve lived a life of lots of faceless sex, but no real intimacy. Guilt . . . I deceived my sister out of our family inheritance 40 years ago and I have never told her about it. Family sadness . . . I am estranged from my 28-year-old daughter because I am a professional dancer and, well, you know what comes with that . . . and she refuses to accept this and won’t speak with me. Deep sorrow . . . I was sexually abused by an uncle when I was 11 years old. I never told it to anyone. Some years ago I worked up the courage to tell a priest. Then months later I learned that he had been arrested and went to jail for sexually abusing children.
Not every confession is like this. But there are so many people trapped in cycles and patterns of sin, everyone jealous of someone else, grudges that people have held onto for years. People have held onto wounds and sins for 10, 20, 30 years. Alcohol and drugs destroy families and friends all over the world. So, so sad. The common themes of jealousy, impatience, being judgmental are almost always present.
With every year of being a priest I become more grateful for the gift of the sacrament of confession, both as a sinner and as a confessor. There is something about the holy place of Lourdes that makes people want to go to confession, want to bring their sins to God, and to know his forgiveness and mercy. How grateful I was to be part of that holy work.
Though I heard confessions every day for 4 to 6 hours, there is much more to Lourdes than people coming to confessions.
One sight that is engraved on my mind and in my heart is the daily Eucharistic procession with hundreds and hundreds of people in wheelchairs and stretchers and hundreds of volunteers pushing them. It’s hard not to cry when you see these processions of people with so many physical illnesses and disabilities. I complain because my feet hurt. I watched people go by me in wheelchairs and on stretchers who would probably like nothing more than to stand on their feet whether they hurt or not.
Lourdes is the place where the sick come first, where we come to see a procession of the sick. So often the sick and the suffering and people with disabilities are sidelined or left on the margins. But not in Lourdes. In Lourdes they take center stage and become our teachers and instructors. They help us to be in touch with our own suffering and our own disabilities.
The people process from the grotto to St. Pius X Basilica, also known as the underground basilica. The sanctuary authorities say that 25,000 people fit in this basilica. Note: Sanctuary is the word used to describe everything at Lourdes: the grotto, the basilicas, the chapels, the hospital, and so much more. Just for the record there are three basilicas, two churches, and 23 chapels in the sanctuary.
One day while watching the Eucharistic procession, as I tried to do each day, even though it made me cry, a woman with a child in a stroller and two other kids approached me and started to talk with me in French. I said, “I don’t speak French.” So she then spoke to me in halting English. She kept calling me “My Father” which I find to be so dear and tender and beautiful, a direct translation from “Mon Père.” She asked me to bless her three children, each one cuter than the next. So I did. I asked her the names of the children. Then she told me that she had another child many, many years ago, but when she was pregnant, she didn’t continue it. At first I didn’t know what she meant, but the sorrow and pain and sadness in her eyes made me understand what she meant. She told me that she had a name for that child also. We both cried. I blessed her and hugged her. I walked away from her grateful to God to be a priest and begging God that I might be worthy to be called, “Mon Père” by the People of God. That brief encounter of less than five minutes made me realize why priests are called “Father” and of the responsibility that comes with being called “Father.” As big as the world is, it all comes down to accompanying people and being accompanied by people in whatever ways we can, just as Pope Francis reminds us.
I learned a new word in Lourdes — jumbolancia. It’s a jumbo ambulance. One came from England with nine ill people who could not fly and 22 helpers. I didn’t see it, but someone told me that the people arrived in Lourdes in the jumbolancia.
I went to the grotto to pray each day for those who have given me intentions, for others who had asked me to pray for them, for those for whom I had promised to pray, and for myself. Along with thousands of people I walked in front of the grotto where Mary spoke to Bernadette many times. Like them, I touched the cave. I kissed the cave. I asked Mary’s help in trying to be a better person, a better priest. It’s so clear that as we touch the cave, we are wanting to touch some of the holiness of St. Bernadette, of Our Lady of Lourdes, of the place. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it. But it’s clear that we are all striving for holiness, to feel connected to the holy. Each day I watched the people touch the cave. It’s very moving and prayerful and holy and inspiring.
Each evening at 8:30, hundreds and hundreds of people assembled at the grotto for the evening Marian procession. They all carry candles and they process on the esplanade along the Gave River from the grotto to the gate of St. Michael and back to the grotto. They pray and sing the rosary in many different languages. The Hail Marys of each decade of the rosary are prayed in French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and more. After each decade of the Rosary, we sing “Immaculate Mary” and that beautiful refrain, “Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria….”
If you know the story of Lourdes, you know that Mary asked Bernadette to dig up some dirt under the cave, the grotto, and from that dirt came a spring of water, which continues to flow today. Thousands of people have been healed and cured by coming to these healing waters. Each week, countless numbers of pilgrims go into the springs to ask God for healing. I was one. Hundreds of people line up for the baths at 9 am and 2 pm. I went to the 9 a.m. slot. When it is your turn you are taken into a shower area and you strip down. Volunteers reverently cover part of your body and then help you walk into the water.
It’s not cold, it’s frigid. But I was so taken by the reverence of what was going on, by the thought that millions of people have bathed in these waters for more than 150 years, by the presence of God, that I didn’t really notice how frigid the water was. After standing in the water for a few seconds, the volunteers tell you to look at the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and to give her your intentions. Then the volunteers sit you down in the water. You only stay in it for five seconds at the most. Volunteers lift you up and you pray the Hail Mary.
Healings and Cures
There is a hospital on the grounds. The hospital is staffed by volunteer doctors and medical personnel. The only patients who can stay in the hospital are those who are too sick to stay in a hotel. In part of the hospital there is a long corridor with pictures and stories of people who have been healed through coming to Lourdes. The sanctuary authorities say that over the past 150 years there have been 7,000 cures. That means that a team of medical doctors and professionals say that there is no medical explanation why these people have been cured. Their histories are studied and reviewed by all sorts of people in the medical world. Every day there are about 15,000 pilgrims at Lourdes (though not all are sick, of course.) Nonetheless, 7,000 is a tiny, tiny fraction of those who come to the healing waters of Lourdes seeking to be cured of all sorts of illnesses and diseases.
What you quickly note, however, is that there are far more healings than cures. This is what is so powerful to me. People come looking to be cured and while the vast majority are not cured, millions more are healed. Though I came to Lourdes as a confessor, I also came to Lourdes as a pilgrim, seeking healing of all the blockages in my life that keep me from being a better priest and person. When you see a limping person pushing another person in a wheelchair, you know what healing is. When you see people let go of something that has held them bound for 30 years, you know what healing is. In the end we all desire healing more than a cure.
The sanctuary estimates that there are 5 million pilgrims each year who travel to see the cave where Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. On any given day, at any given time, there are well over 10,000 people at the sanctuary. I am amazed at how peaceful it is. A calm sense of peace and quiet pervades the entire area known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Of note: I learned that there are more hotel rooms in Lourdes than there are in Paris. How’s that for incredible?
Organizations need volunteers. For Lourdes to run well the sanctuary needs approximately 1,500 volunteers per day. Amazing. People come from all over the world to volunteer for five days or six weeks or three months and everything in between. Volunteers are needed everywhere: at the welcome center to greet pilgrims and to answer questions; to push wheelchairs and stretchers; to go the train station twice every day to transport sick people from the train to the sanctuary; to work at the baths helping people get into the healing waters; to direct processions; to work in the hospital at the sanctuary, and in many other places. Volunteers are responsible for their own transportation, hotel and food while at Lourdes. I met dozens and dozens of people who have been coming for years to serve in the hospitality of Lourdes.
There are countless pilgrimages every day. Most are people from a diocese or an archdiocese though there are pilgrimages from schools and parishes. Two powerful pilgrimages: Lourdes cancer survivors. Thousands of cancer survivors come every year to Lourdes to give thanks that their cancer is in remission. The other big pilgrimage — about 10,000 pilgrims — is a national pilgrimage from Italy. It is a federation of diocesan groups of people who bring the sick to Lourdes. It’s hard to explain how powerful it is to watch these pilgrimages.
There is so much suffering in the world. In Lourdes one sees and feels and tastes so much of it — physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Maybe the Hail Holy Queen is correct when we pray “we send up our signs mourning and weeping in this valley of tears….” But a valley of tears is not the whole story. Lourdes is also a place of so much life and hope and happiness. People smile and greet each other. People are kind and considerate and compassionate. You can see and hear and feel and touch the kindness and gentleness of people there. People at Lourdes are anxiously waiting for Mary to show us the “blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ.”
Each day as I visit the grotto I think of the Grotto at Notre Dame. One might say that the grotto in Lourdes is the soul of France just as the Grotto at Notre Dame is the soul of the University. We at Notre Dame are so blessed to have a Grotto. Though smaller in size, the Grotto at Notre Dame looks so much like the grotto in Lourdes. One thing that both grottos have in common are candles. In Lourdes, people light candles day and night. I was so taken by how many candles there are that one day I did the math. There are “holders” for 2,688 candles. That’s a lot of candles!
Finally, with so many people coming to Lourdes each year, I wonder how shrines like Lourdes can become centers of evangelization in the Church. The Church continues to see the great need for evangelization. Here at Lourdes there is a yearly audience of 5 million people. How can their trip to Lourdes be used as evangelization? To be a shrine that attracts so many people from all over the world is a most unique opportunity for evangelization. To not do this is to miss a great opportunity. It’s very interesting to note that in the last few months all the Shrines of the Church — like Lourdes — have been moved from being placed under the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Another great move by Pope Francis.
Oh, and . . . I discovered that people from all over the world are like Americans who speak to someone who doesn’t understand English. They think that if they shout the other person will understand. This seems to be true all over. I can’t tell you how many times someone from France shouts a question at me because I didn’t understand it the first time even though I am trying to say, “I don’t speak French.”
I am so grateful to have visited this place of hope and healing, of mercy and tenderness, as I sing each day “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria, Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., is on sabbatical for the Fall 2019 semester, during which time he plans to volunteer with immigrants and refugees in McAllen, Texas and spend three weeks on silent retreat, among other missions. In light of this active sabbatical, his regular “Being Mercy” column has been renamed “Doing Mercy” for the duration of the semester.