Three hundred people gathered around a young girl kneeling in the dirt along a forlorn stretch of the River Gave. She knelt before a cave, or grotto, in a rocky cliff near the river. She raised her eyes toward a hollow above the cave and silently moved her lips. The villagers of Lourdes, a mountain community in southern France, pastured their pigs here. Could the Blessed Mother really be appearing in this reeking place? And to Bernadette Soubirous, an illiterate 14-year-old living in an abandoned jail cell with her impoverished family? The crowd came to the grotto of Massabielle to find out, maybe to glimpse the Mother of God themselves. Instead of a miracle from heaven, they saw the actions of a simpleton, a fraud, perhaps even a lunatic — at least at first.
‘Without Natural Explanation’
“Drink from the spring and wash yourself there,” requested “the lady in white,” as Bernadette described her. It was February 25, 1858, the lady’s ninth appearance to Bernadette since February 11. Bernadette hesitated. The lady pointed to a patch of mud in the back of the grotto.
A confused Bernadette still obeyed. She scraped her fingers into the muddy hole and brought her cupped hands to her lips. Then Bernadette turned to the crowd, her face smeared with muck.
“She’s mad!” a voice shouted.
“A filthy little upstart,” said another.
Bernadette’s quiet explanation: “She said do this for sinners.”
That evening, a man had the muddy water brought to his home. He poured it over his ruined eye. Instantly the eye could see — Lourdes’ first miracle. Three days later, this mud hole of shame gushed clear mountain water. A desperate woman plunged her crippled hand into the spring. The hand emerged healed — Lourdes’ first miracle at the grotto.
Water continues to pour from the spring, an astounding 12,000 gallons per hour. Pilgrims continue to come to Lourdes, for healing, spiritual refreshment, or just for curiosity— an astonishing 6 million per year. As for the healings? The shrine’s medical bureau has documented more than 7,000. The Church has endorsed 70 healings as miracles of God. A nun’s instantaneous cure of nerve disease received the most recent approval in 2018.
The beauty of its setting in the Pyrenees Mountains is the backdrop to the human drama of this sacred space, where heaven’s Queen has revealed her most highly favored name, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” It’s no miracle the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is the second most visited Marian Shrine in the world.
Drinking and Washing
First-time pilgrims often are surprised at the sanctuary’s vastness. Crossing the St. Michael Bridge from Old Town, visitors encounter the dramatic Esplanade. In this grassy park with its elliptical walkway, thousands of worshippers participate each day in two legendary Lourdes traditions.
An afternoon eucharistic procession circles the Esplanade. With monstrance raised high, the presiding priest blesses the afflicted in wheelchairs along the way. In the evening, pilgrims carry candles and pray the rosary in a crescendo of languages at a torchlight procession.
As pilgrims proceed along the Esplanade, they pass by the Statue of the Crowned Virgin before reaching iconic structures filled with stunning mosaics and precious artifacts: the original Crypt chapel (1866), the Rosary Basilica (1889), and the Upper Basilica with its landmark spire (1871).
Of course, visiting the Grotto of Apparitions is the highlight of a Lourdes pilgrimage. Swing right at the Rosary Basilica and down a shaded path, there it is!
In silent unity, pilgrims line up and enter the grotto, touch its black rock face, peer into the miracle spring. They find the marker where Bernadette experienced the first of her 18 visions. They gaze up at the image of the Immaculate Conception in the grotto niche in awe.
At multiple fountains, pilgrims “drink and wash” with water piped from the grotto well. Some wash more literally at 17 private bath receptacles. They ask for healing while plunging backward into the frigid water with the help of trained assistants. Many visitors continue their pilgrimage by crossing a ramp over the River Gave to light a candle, leaving it as a prayer petition in the Chapel of Light.