Pune, 8th September 2021: We were travelling in a bullet train from Paris to Lourdes. My family was on a three-week-long Europe holiday tour. As we approached our destination, I realised the passengers in our compartment could be the pilgrims.
There were three couples with teenaged children; a young nun travelling with her septuagenarian father. My wife Jacqueline, our daughter Aditi and myself were heading towards the world’s most famous Marian pilgrimage centre.
Lourdes station is a couple of kilometres away from the pilgrimage site. Soon after getting refreshed at the hotel, we joined the hundreds of pilgrims who were heading towards the Basilica built near the site of the Apparition or the appearance of Mother Mary. Lourdes is one of the most visited Catholic pilgrim centres in the world.
What we experienced during the next three days of our stay in this small town was just unforgettable.
The ongoing novena prayers in honour of Mother Mary and her feast on September 8 have refreshed my memories of the days we spent in Lourdes in 2012.
There were thousands of people on the streets, all of them proceeding to the same destination — the Lourdes shrine.
The majority of them were Europeans, but there were also some people, like us, from other continents. We reached the huge grounds in front of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and joined the multi-lingual Rosary prayer there.
Mother Mary is believed to have appeared to teenager Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes 18 times in 1858. Bernadette who later joined a convent as a nun died at 35 years of age. The Catholic Church was later declared as a saint.
The miracle associated with Bernadette has indeed transformed this otherwise insignificant town in southwestern France. Due to the apparitions, Lourdes today is the third most important Catholic pilgrimage in the world, after the Vatican in Rome and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Lourdes city has indeed seen prosperity due to the flourishing pilgrim tourism there. The city is one of the most important centres of Marian devotion in the world, the other being Fatima (Our Lady of Fatima) in Portugal and Vailankanni (Our Lady of Vailankanni) in Tamilnadu in India.
The feast of Mother Mary is also celebrated on September 8 at the Basilica of Mount Mary at Bandra in Mumbai and at Haregaon in Ahmednagar district.
After Paris, Lourdes is also the second city in France having the maximum number of hotels. In fact, during our three-day visit there, I noticed there were few residential buildings but more hotels and shops, and other commercial centres, catering to the pilgrim tourists in the town.
The population of Lourdes is only about 16,000, but the town receives six million pilgrims and visitors every year. About 60,000 of these visitors are ill or physically challenged. Sick people from various places in Europe and elsewhere are specially brought here to seek their healing at this Marian devotion centre.
I saw many such people being taken around in wheelchairs by nurses who wore a blue tunic. They are not nuns, but health workers, I was told. I realised that banking on millions of devout visitors, Lourdes has turned itself into a major ‘pilgrim tourism centre of the world.
The major attraction in the evening was the candlelight procession in front of the Basilica. It is indeed a sight to watch, with the statue of Mother Mary being carried by the faithful lot.
Some groups of devotees in the procession were carrying banners of their nations from various continents. Looking at them, I wished I too should have prepared a banner of India!
The next morning, we attended a mass celebrated at the famous Grotto, the very site where Mother Mary is believed to have appeared to Bernadette. There is a statue of Mary in white robes and with folded hands, replicas of which can be seen across the world.
On the third day, we attended another mass celebrated by a cardinal in an impressive underground church, the Basilica of St Pius X, which is built under a garden. The mass at the underground church and the prayers at Mary’s statue is a must for any visiting pilgrim.
During our visit, a German bishop and an Italian cardinal concelebrated the holy mass there. I and my family members later met both these clergies and took photographs with them.
Incidentally, bishops and cardinals are senior ranks in the Catholic Church hierarchy, and the College of Cardinals elected one amongst them as the Pope whenever there is a vacancy to this post.
The visit to the Saint Pius X Basilica on the third day of our stay left all of us bewildered. The underground basilica accommodates as many as 25,000 people and is one of the largest churches in the world. International masses with prayers in major world languages are celebrated at the basilica every Wednesday and
Pope John Paul II – the pilgrim pontiff who set a record of visiting a large number of nations – had visited Lourdes first in 1983 and later in 2004.
The economy of Lourdes totally depends on the pilgrimage of Catholic devotees from all over the world. The small city is a fine example of pilgrim tourism.
Lourdes is indeed a beautiful and very clean pilgrim tourism centre. During our stay there, we walked for a long distance admiring the landscape there, the clean sky blue waters of the river flowing just opposite the grotto and shopping at the local shops.
A pilgrimage to Lourdes, like a visit to the Vatican, is indeed a dream tour for any Catholic like me. But even for others, a visit to Lourdes, with its picturesque surroundings, can be a refreshing holiday.
The large number of photographs taken there have helped me to keep afresh memories of this picturesque town.
(Camil Parkhe is a senior journalist based in Pune. He started his journalism career in Goa and has worked in various newspapers in different capacities.)