Lourdes and the modern world

One hundred fifty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1858, an illiterate, impoverished 14–year-old girl received the first of 18 visions of Mary, who eventually revealed herself to Bernadette Soubirous as “the Immaculate Conception.” In mid-19th century Europe, Lourdes, a small town in the French Pyrenees, was about as backwater as backwater gets. Today, as for the past century and a half, Lourdes is one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites, a place of decency, fellowship, and spiritual healing where inexplicable physical cures have also taken place.

In Lourdes: Font of Faith, Hope, and Charity (Paulist Press), Elizabeth Ficocelli tells the story of the shrine of Lourdes through the prism of the three theological virtues. Her description of Bernadette — whom the Church recognizes as a saint, “not because she saw visions, but because of her heroic virtue in responding to God’s mysterious call” — is a powerful reminder that sanctity is for everyone, and that the extraordinary enters the ordinary in order to call us to our true vocations. Genuine conversion, not spectacle, is what visions are for.

So if you want a good introduction to the history and spirit of Lourdes, Elizabeth Ficocelli’s book is for you. For those interested in examining the phenomenon of Lourdes through the eyes of a sympathetic secular scholar, there is Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (Penguin Books), by the Oxford-based British historian Ruth Harris.

Professor Harris’s scholarship is impeccable, but it’s neither detached nor dessicated: as few secular academics do, she went to Lourdes as a volunteer aide to the sick and found herself caught up in a web of human solidarity, open-mindedness, and “spiritual generosity” (as she puts it in a fine phrase). That experience, coupled with the discovery that modern medicine had no diagnosis (let alone a cure) for a condition then plaguing her, led Ruth Harris to question the modern mythology of scientific progress, according to which phenomena like Lourdes are mindless and reactionary. Breaking with the chief unexamined assumption of secular modernity — that humanity, tutored by the scientific method, will outgrow its “need” for religion — Professor Harris found her scholar’s interest piqued by aspects of the story of Lourdes that skeptics typically miss.

Like the fact that Lourdes became one focal point for a new Christian feminism in 19th century France, as the pilgrimage to the Pyrenees “offered [women] a world of opportunity” for service and leadership. “The hundreds of thousands of Catholic women in the religious orders, mainly working in nursing and teaching, and the untold legions of lay women active in fundraising and charity” demonstrated by contrast how small and ineffectual were the initiatives on behalf of women taken by the hyper-secularist French Third Republic.

Or the fact that Lourdes became a place of social solidarity immune from the class divisions and rancors that had riven French society for centuries. As Harris puts it, Lourdes “brought different ranks of society together… [in] the seemingly spontaneous creation of a Christian collectivity that erased class and status.” What Marx imagined and Lenin tried to ramrod into history by mass murder, Bernadette effected by summoning others to faith, hope, and charity.

Without making a big point of it, Ruth Harris’s richly textured book is a devastating critique of the human emptiness of the secular city, which can’t deal with pain and tries to push it off-stage or eliminate it by scientific advance. Medical pain-relief is, to be sure, a worthy cause. But it becomes a false quest — an ultimately inhuman, even demonic, quest — when it seeks to eliminate suffering from the human condition. It can’t, because physical pain is not the only pain, or even the worse pain. Animals feel pain; only humans suffer. At Lourdes, you can’t help but recognize that suffering is an integral part of the human experience, and that while suffering can’t be eliminated, it can be transformed and transcended — by faith, hope, and love.

Lourdes is a Marian shrine. Like all true devotion to Mary, it points us toward her Son and his cross.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash