Lourdes after over 150 years, by Donal Anthony Foley
Lourdes and St Bernadette retain the esteem and love of Catholics around the world, and indeed Lourdes is so well established in this country, with many diocesan pilgrimages, and pilgrimages for the sick and handicapped, that it is hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn’t there. But that was the case in the mid-nineteenth century, and so it is instructive to have a look at the broader situation of the Church at that time, and also at some of the more famous miraculous cures associated with the shrine.
Lourdes wasn’t the only Marian apparition in 19th century France, but it was undoubtedly the most important, mainly due to the effects of the water from the spring revealed to Bernadette by Our Lady. The healings obtained at Lourdes were so marvellous that it was justly described as a “miracle factory.” And these miracles took place at the very moment when 19th century secularism was reaching its height, during the period when France was still recovering from the effects of the French Revolution nearly 70 years earlier. For the Church particularly, the rebuilding of Catholic life was a long, slow and painful process.
But in this, French Catholics weren’t acting alone: they had the most astonishing help from Our Lady, who intervened directly not only at Lourdes, but also at Rue du Bac in Paris, in 1830, when she appeared to St Catherine Labouré, and gave her the details of a medal which should be struck, with the invocation O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. The wonders wrought through this Medal of the Immaculate Conception were so great that it quickly became known as the “Miraculous Medal.”
Mary also appeared to two young children in September 1846 at La Salette in south eastern France, with a message emphasizing the necessity of prayer and penance because of blasphemy and Sabbath breaking in particular. She warned of crop blights and famine if she wasn’t heeded.
During this period, too, St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, was exercising his awe-inspiring ministry and drawing increasing numbers of penitents to his confessional. Numbers of these were individuals who would go on to found religious orders. So gradually, Catholic life was being rebuilt in France though Our Lady’s direct intervention and through the work of saintly individuals, and given France’s position as the “eldest daughter of the Church,” this naturally had a positive influence on Catholicism elsewhere.
But heaven judged that something more was needed, and that something was the intervention at Lourdes, where Our Lady appeared to poor, sickly Bernadette in 1858. In the teeth of initial opposition from the secular authorities, Lourdes gradually established itself as the premier European Marian shrine of the nineteenth century, and even then, Mary wasn’t finished with France, since she also appeared to four children at the small village of Pontmain in 1871. This was during the Franco-Prussian war, and she came with a message that the people should pray and that God would listen to their prayers.
Coming back to Lourdes, though, the core message given by Our Lady was that she was the Immaculate Conception, and here we can see a clear link with her apparition at Rue du Bac twenty eight years previously, when she had asked for the medal invoking her under this title. And of course, four years previously, in 1854, Pope Pius IX had defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
But it is as a place of miracles that Lourdes became famous, and was able to draw increasing numbers of pilgrims as the nineteenth century progressed.
One of the most famous cures connected with Lourdes was that of Pierre de Rudder in 1875. His leg had been crushed by a falling tree in 1867, causing an open fracture that refused to heal, which led several doctors to advise amputation. He refused this option and instead decided to go on pilgrimage to Oostacker in Belgium, where a replica of the Lourdes grotto had been built. On arriving at the grotto, his bones began to knit together in a matter of minutes so that he was able to leave without crutches or any wounds. His doctors were unable to explain his cure and he lived for a further twenty three years; after his death the bones of both legs were exhumed as further evidence of the miraculously healed fractures. In 1908 the bishop of Bruges declared that his healing was a miracle, and this is one of more than sixty cures officially recognized by the Church since 1858. Most of these have taken place either in the baths or during the Blessed Sacrament procession, but they undoubtedly represent only a small fraction of the many physical cures that have taken place at Lourdes, to say nothing of the spiritual conversions.
An equally amazing cure concerned Jack Traynor from Liverpool, who as a soldier in the First World War was severely wounded and left completely incapacitated. His legs were partially paralyzed, his right arm was completely paralyzed and he was epileptic. Traynor was discharged from the army with a full disability pension in 1916. However, in 1923 he heard that a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes was being planned and became determined to go. The journey itself almost killed him, but the group finally arrived on 22 July 1923. Despite the misgivings of those who were with him, he insisted on attending all the services and also being immersed in the baths. On 25 July, his paralysed legs became agitated as he was put in one of the baths and he tried to get to his feet. But his brancardiers prevented this and quickly took him to the ceremony of the blessing of the sick. As the Blessed Sacrament procession passed by, the Archbishop of Rheims made the sign of the cross over him with the Monstrance. Traynor immediately felt that a great change had taken place in his condition and he was able to bless himself with his previously useless right hand.
The next morning, Jack Traynor ran all the way to the Grotto in his bare feet, with brancardiers trailing in his wake! As might be expected his cure caused general amazement, and the news reached Liverpool where a great crowd greeted him on his return. He began a coal delivery business which flourished, and in 1926 the Lourdes medical bureau declared his cure had been miraculous.
The government officials responsible for his war pension, however, insisted on paying this until the end of his life. Bureaucracy has little place for the miraculous.
However, miracles do still happen at Lourdes, but perhaps not now in such a spectacular fashion because our faith is not of the same quality as Jack Traynor’s. Despite that, we should be grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Lourdes and all that it means for Catholics throughout the world.