ABOUT two million people visit Lourdes each year but no group is more unusual than that which will shortly be making its unique "climbing pilgrimage".
It is now 40 years since this event has been organised annually by Fr Vincent Petty and he has asked me to extend his invitation to anyone who would like to join in. It is an unforgettable experience.
Pilgrims forgather on August 4 at Marcadau, south of Lourdes, on the Franco-Spanish frontier. Supper is followed by an international sing-song round the camp fire, a torchlight procession and a penitential service in the chapel near the refuge.
Early next morning the climbers set off up the Pyrenean mountain known as Grande Fache. On the way, Mass is said in honour of Our Lady of the Snow, whose feast day it is. Then they climb to the summit where • a statue of Our Lady stands.
There is no such feast, I can hear you say, isn't it one of those sad casualties of the revised liturgical calendar?
It is an interesting question to which I think the answer must be yes and no. For officially, of course, August 5 is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary Major, one of Rome's greatest beauties and the oldest church in the West to be dedicated to Our Lady.
It was erected on the o,rders of Pope Sixtus III to mark the proclamation of Mary as Mother of God by the (431) Council of Ephesus.
This much is history. But of course the imaginative and resourceful Romans were adepts at creating legends so potent that bald fact soon paled before pious fiction.
Popular tradition had it that Our Lady had been personally responsible for building an earlier church on the same site, in fact nearly a hundred years before, during the pontificate of Pope Liberius.
She had, it was said, indicated the spot on which the church should be built by causing, through her invocation a fall of snow to occur there in the middle of the summer.
It was believed, furthermore, that Our Lady had appeared in a vision to a certain Roman patrician called John who endowed and sumptuously enriched this eventually famous church on Rome's Esquiline Hill.
In course of time the legend found its way firmly into the liturgical books (rich sources of myth) and the church gained the name of St Mary ad Nives, or "of the Snow".
All this was recorded
hundreds of years after the original miracle had allegedly taken place. But the sentimental faithful and who could blame them? were loath to lose the lovely title, for Mary, of Our Lady of the Snow.
Thus it survives after a fashion. And it is certainly appropriate for the occasion when Mass is said on Grande Fache where there is plenty of snow about, even in midsummer.
It is probably too late for this year but anyone interested is urged to contact Fr Vincent at the Maison des Chapelains, 65100 Lourdes, France (Te: (62) 94 72 26).
Perhaps, also, I should explain an easy way of being associated with the pilgrimage while still enjoying much of its excitement for only skilled mountaineers may make the climb all the way to the summit.
While they are making their ascent, non-mountaineers can walk up to the refuge with members of The delightful little parish of Cauterets, praying as they go. Mass is then said in front of the Chapel.
It is all touchingly informal and attractive and the amount of enthusiastic young people who join this pilgrimage is remarkable.
Locals from both sides of the border meet there very year and many from much further afield like to make the journey as a prelude or sequel to their visit to Lourdes itself.
It is of course a remote spot but the small mountain hotel near the refuge is romantic if not five-star. It is surely a "must" for everyone at least once in a lifetime, while those who have to stay at home commit no heresy by uniting themselves in the
spirit with these unusual pilgrims by a prayer to "Our Lady of the Snow".