lonely. You cannot help making friends there . .
Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark writes from Lourdes. THE CHANCE of experiencing or even of witnessing a dramatic cure at Lourdes which can be verified as a miracle must be millions to one against. So that is not the attraction. Lourdes is noisy, crowded and expensive -a glass of beer sets you back about a pound.
The shops are nearly all the same, selling little else but religious objects. It often pours with rain and, like most places on the Continent, there is nowhere you can get a really good cup of tea.
Besides, a week in Lourdes costs more than a week in Majorca. Yes, it is easy enough to find reasons for avoiding the place and yet people continue to go in vast numbers. Why? What is the draw?
I remember once putting this question to a young girl who had been to Lourdes several years in succession. She said: "My religion has come alive here and has really meant something to me for the first time in my life."
Certainly many people find they can pray in Lourdes. It is the natural thing to do there.
Personally I find it wonderful to be in a place where the Faith, the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross — traditional Catholic devotions and hymns are taken for granted and become just part of the daily round; where you don't have to explain or feel like apologising for what you are doing; a place where everyone else is one with you in prayer.
Basically we all have a deep need for our religion to "come alive". We need a holy day more than a holiday. Some may find what they are looking for in the Grotto when all is quiet and peaceful at night after the torchlight procession.
For others it is the experience of joining with tens of thousands of people of different nationalities at Mass in the underground basilica and singing the Credo together; or again it may be the Blessed Sacrament procession or the anointing of sick which can be so moving.
But for the girl I spoke to, I think it was the experience of nursing and comforting the sick that had made the deepest impression. Perhaps she had never felt needed before in quite the same way. In Lourdes she was able to give not just her help but herself.
It is grand to see the rapport and friendship that develops at once between the elderly sick and the young helpers. Yes, friendship is one of the most valuable things that Lourdes has to offer. If you go with a pilgrimage to Lourdes you won't be lonely. You cannot help making friends there.
I expect the majority of regular pilgrims continue to go partly at least because they thoroughly enjoy it. And they enjoy it largely as a result of the wonderful company and friendliness they encounter.
So many of us live isolated and lonely lives and a holiday abroad may not solve this problem — certainly not in the way that Lourdes does.
Even when the travel and hotel arrangements and everything else goes wrong, somehow Our Blessed Lady always seems to ask for the "extra wine" we need to come away feeling that our journey has been more than worthwhile, and ready to sign on for the next year.
I said at the beginning that there is very little chance of seeing a cure that can be verified as
a miracle. The tests for a miracle to be declared are, of course, most severe — and rightly so. But for every verified miracle there will be hundreds of cases of genuine healing, whether physical, mental or spiritual.
The people concerned know that they are better, that in some way they are healed. And they realise that this is a result of faith, of prayer and of the openness to the power of God that Mary our Mother has created for us at Lourdes.
Finally, I must face the question: Why do I go? Is it only duty? Well, I confess my first impression of Lourdes at the age 'of 19 was poor. But I just called in there for an hour one afternoon while on a trip round France. It was the superficial view of a tourist.
I have come now to see that Lourdes is not so much a place as the people who go there. Involvement with a pilgrimage, and with the sick if possible, together with a spirit of prayer, is all-mm port ant.
I never went to Lourdes again until I became a bishop 21 one years later, and I have been going regularly since then. The old hands tell me that as a bishop you never get to know what Lourdes really has to offer — because you have the distraction of carrying out an official role, I suppose, and you are not so closely involved with the sick.
Maybe that is true. But still I'll settle for what Lourdes has given me. I only know that I am glad I was pushed into going there again or I might have missed an experience in my life that I have come to value more than I can say.
There wasn't a whiff of disagreement, even when the priests giving Holy Communion to the crowds placed the Host on lips and in hands.
We were all very silent, watching the multi-coloured pageantry glow against the muted golden vistas of a Rome which stretched back and back through time.
The commentators could mention the hundred thousand people in St Peter's Square, but it was much more as if we as part of the two hundred and more millions of the Church were there, too, and there had to be a unity transcending our differences, a deep unity which came from Jesus Christ himself.
As the shadows lengthened and the square. for all the bright red and purple of cardinals and bishops turned grey, that unity was all summed up in that small pauper's coffin lying alone on the ground before the altar. Alleluia! And Peter goes on living.