Cover story -- Lourdes
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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

-- CNS/Catholic Press Photo

Pope John Paul II prays at the Massabielle grotto in Lourdes, France, Aug. 14.
The pope and Lourdes: Is too much hope a dangerous thing?

Lourdes, France

John Paul II has always taken hope more seriously than experience, and never more so than during his Aug. 14 and 15 pilgrimage to Lourdes, Christianity’s premier healing shrine. The hard question raised but not answered here, and one with applications far beyond the pope’s physical health, is when this kind of determination becomes self-defeating -- or, to put it differently, if too much hope can be a dangerous thing.

On Sunday morning, the field where John Paul celebrated Mass for 200,000 people looked like a massive outdoor hospital ward, with tens of thousands of pilgrims on canes, in wheelchairs, even on gurneys with IVs attached. They hailed the ailing pontiff as one of their own.

John Paul repeatedly slumped, winced and struggled to speak over these two days, but he seemed to connect with the faithful on a much deeper level. The Lourdes trip may thus be remembered as the moment when John Paul’s long transformation from governor of the Catholic church into living symbol of human suffering, almost an icon of Christ on the Cross, was complete.

Six million pilgrims a year come to this town of 15,000 nestled in the Pyrenees. They are drawn to a grotto built on the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared 18 times in 1858 to a 14-year-old French girl named Bernadette Soubirous. They are also drawn to the famous springs, believed to have healing powers.

The tension between the will to go on and the wisdom to accept reality was felt on multiple levels, including the pope’s health.

When the pope arrived at the Grotto of Massabielle on Saturday to pray in the spot where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to Bernadette, he was helped to his knees. Within moments, however, the pope slumped and appeared on the verge of collapse, prompting his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz, to come to his aid. John Paul finished the brief devotion, but at his next public appearance French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray read the pope’s speech.

When Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls was asked for comment, he shrugged it off: “It’s normal. We have to get used to it.”

During his homily at a Mass for some 200,000 pilgrims Sunday morning, John Paul struggled again. He could be heard muttering, “Jesus and Mary” under his breath in Polish, and once mumbled, “Help me” to no one in particular. Later John Paul seemed confused during the Eucharistic prayers, and had to be reminded to elevate the host at the consecration. At another point, the pope muttered, “I have to finish,” almost as if to will himself forward.

The pope’s travails created an obvious bond with this crowd.

“My mother had Parkinson’s disease for 30 years, and I was with her,” said Irish pilgrim Lyla Shakespeare. “When I looked at the pope today, all I could see was my mother.”

French layman Jean Vanier was at the pope’s side on Saturday, helping to lead a rosary procession. Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche community that works with severely disabled people, and at the end of the procession, John Paul embraced him and gave Vanier the rosary he had been praying, as if to say: “I’m part of your community now.”

Despite the health worries, John Paul intends to be in Loreto, Italy, to visit another Marian shrine Sept. 5. Possible trips to Ireland and Turkey are likewise under review.

Beyond John Paul’s capacity to travel, the deep question is how the Catholic church will accommodate his new role as icon rather than commander-in-chief. Senior church officials say the testimony the pope is offering is precious, but it is coming at the price of incoherence in Vatican policy and a steady expansion in the power of lower-level officials in the Roman curia. ( See story.)

The hope/experience tension also showed up in the context of the papacy and prayer. On Saturday evening, as the pope looked out over a sea of light around the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary at the end of a candlelight procession, he prayed that “forgiveness and brotherly love may take root in human hearts.”

There seemed little evidence, however, that the pope’s appeals are cutting much ice. In the precise moment John Paul spoke, four other stories were breaking across news wires:

  • At least 159 men, women and children were massacred that day in a United Nations refugee camp in Burundi, either shot or hacked to death by assassins wielding machetes;
  • Peace talks broke down in Najaf, promising fresh violence;
  • Twenty-one people were killed in renewed ground combat in Afghanistan;
  • A swastika was painted on a wall in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, along with the phrase “Death to the Jews.” (Cardinal Jean Lustiger of Paris later dismissed the incident as the work of adolescents looking to provoke a reaction.)

Critics might suggest that the mere act of invoking peace, in the absence of imaginative actions to help bring it about, risks making the papacy look ineffectual. Even some in the Roman curia grumble that unless the church has a specific contribution to make to an international problem, it is a mistake for the pope to talk too much about it.

John Paul, however, did not shrink Saturday night from asking that “every weapon be laid down, and all hatred and violence be put aside.” As a pious wish, it’s difficult to dispute; it does, however, beg the question of whether the papacy is doing all it could to make peace happen.

Another form of the hope vs. experience theme showed up in the pope’s comments to, and about, French Catholics. Despite the large and disproportionately youthful crowds in Lourdes, estimates suggest that only between 5 to 8 percent of France’s 46 million Catholics actually practice the faith.

The pope recalled France’s Catholic history.

“I cannot fail to mention the great saints who came from this land, the outstanding masters of Christian thought, the schools of spirituality and the many missionaries who left their homeland in order to carry throughout the world the message of Christ the Lord,” he said.

John Paul said he expects today’s French Catholics to do the same: “I look with confidence,” he said, “to the Christian community of today, which generously takes up the call to enrich our own times with the wisdom and hope that come from the Gospel.”

Yet viewed against the backdrop of a prolonged vocations crisis in France, historically low levels of religious practice and a culture that has virtually expelled religion from public life, some observers found this a rather rosy prognosis. The pope, they noted, did not offer any new ideas to respond to runaway secularism and a public morality that accents tolerance rather than the pursuit of virtue.

Finally, the pope gave hope the upper hand in his exchange with French President Jacques Chirac.

Allied in opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, France and the Holy See have fought pitched battles in recent months. John Paul desperately wanted a reference to God and the Christian roots of Europe in the new European Constitution, a proposal that France played the key role in defeating. The pope has also criticized France’s new law prohibiting the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools.

But with Chirac, John Paul accented the positive.

“The Catholic church,” he said, “desires to offer society a specific contribution toward the building of a world in which the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can form the basis of social life.”

By invoking France’s legendary trinity of secular values, John Paul in effect identified himself with the positive legacy of the French Revolution -- a striking move, since a string of Roman pontiffs in the 18th and 19th centuries excoriated the revolution and its intellectual and cultural aftermath.

In return, Chirac called John Paul “pilgrim of pilgrims.”

The French president took one subtle political dig at the Bush administration, asserting that France and the Holy See are united in a struggle “for peace, for relations between states to be governed by law, challenging the policy of fait accompli.”

For the most part, however, he was upbeat. Speaking of John Paul, Chirac said: “Your solicitude and your example will rekindle the fervor of all those men and women who, often suffering and ailing, come to pray at Lourdes.”

Given the tensions between France and the Vatican in the last three months, to say nothing of the last three centuries, it seemed a positive opening. Whether John Paul’s relentless message of hope made a dent with respect to the other clouds that dot the horizon, from global violence to his own health, remains to be seen.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

-- CNS

Sick people in Lourdes are assisted by caretakers Aug. 13.

The town where ‘the sick are royalty’

To date, the church has approved 66 miracles at Lourdes, the last one in 1987, and has acknowledged 7,000 “inexplicable cures.” In 2002 alone, 378,702 pilgrims were immersed in the baths. The medical director at Lourdes says he receives a miracle report serious enough to merit review once a week.

All this has made Lourdes a major pilgrimage center. The annual budget of the shrine is an estimated $22 million, and the total economic activity of the shops, restaurants and hotels is several times more. (Lourdes, a town of 15,000, boasts 32,000 hotel beds).

It’s common to hear in Lourdes that “the sick are royalty,” and one can see why. Streets in the city center have broad red bands where only the sick are allowed to pass. Many lodgings have built-in medical facilities. Visitors arrive in conveyances such as the “Jumbulance,” a “jumbo ambulance” with 16 seats down one side and eight beds down the other for people too seriously ill to fly. The Jumbulance carries nebulizers, oxygen concentrators and electric feeding pumps, along with a medical staff.

A rationalist might wonder whether someone who needs such care ought to be making a road trip at all, but that’s not the logic of Lourdes. Here people tell miracle stories the way lawyers might talk about a round of golf. Pilgrims say they don’t “expect” a healing, that the real miracles come in the confessional or within their own hearts, but many are clearly hoping that God might choose to do something tangible for them too.

“People either gain faith here or they lose it,” said Redemptorist Fr. Terry Creech, who spends four months of every year hearing confessions in Lourdes. “Sometimes they come with expectations that can’t possibly be met.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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