Catholicism has a great sense of place, a faith rooted in special locations around the world. There is the Holy Land, of course, but in the last two millennia Catholicism has developed a long list of sites around the world with special meaning: the Vatican, Santiago de Compostela, Fatima, Guadalupe, and thousands of other locales where saints lived and worked, where the Virgin Mary appeared, or where God intervened in the lives and ways of men and women.
Or all three, as is the case of Lourdes, a small and—until February 1858—insignificant French village that rests hard against the Pyrenees Mountains marking the border with Spain. The story of Lourdes is well-known to most Catholics: how a barely-literate 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, gathering wood by the river, fell to her knees in a marshy grotto at the vision of a beautiful lady who looked at her “as one person looks at another person.” Over the course of the next five months Bernadette had 18 separate visions of the lady, who eventually identified herself with the phrase “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Even before Church officials confirmed Bernadette’s visions as the Virgin Mary, hundreds of believers showed up to pray at the grotto, washing in and drinking the spring water that flowed there. Today, Lourdes welcomes more than six million pilgrims a year from all over the world, and the Church has confirmed 67 miracles associated with the site, the most recent one from 2002.
Less well known than Lourdes’ importance as a pilgrimage site, however, is that fact that it also provides an opportunity for service to thousands of people each year through the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL), the volunteer corps that works at Lourdes. I know about the HNDL because, somewhat unexpectedly, I became a recruit in this volunteer army this past June.
My Lourdes journey started nine months earlier, when my wife, Maria, approaching her 50th birthday, decided she wanted to mark the milestone not with a big party, but with a volunteer experience at Lourdes.
My first response: “Have a great trip, honey.”
My second response (after the gentle persuasion that only a loving spouse can provide): packing my bags and boarding a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Paris, en route to Lourdes.
Neither Maria nor I were prepared for what came next. Despite the tens of thousands of people who filled the town’s streets and gathered in and around the Basilica, grotto, and springs, the atmosphere is one of an energizing peacefulness. Songs and prayers fill the air almost constantly. Signs and symbols of the Catholic faith embrace you at every turn, from the church spires; to hotels, cafes, and souvenir shops named for saints; to the images of St. Bernadette and the Blessed Virgin that seemingly hang in every storefront and hotel lobby. “Disneyland for Catholics” I called it, but replace the frenzied consumerism of Disneyland with an overwhelming sense of shared humanity, faith, and peace.
Assigned to separate male and female teams, Maria worked in the Women’s Baths, while I had a more varied list of daily tasks, including assisting handicapped pilgrims onto and off of the trains that arrived and departed daily; crowd control at the daily masses and processions; and working in the Men’s Baths.
As Maria and I would debrief at the end of each day, we marveled at feeling both exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Volunteering involved real physical labor, especially working at the baths. And the baths are the core volunteer experience of Lourdes.
Young, old, healthy, sick, handicapped, deformed, fat, thin, fearful, hopeful, troubled, grateful, laughing, newborn, dying, grieving, tearful, devout, skeptical: almost the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience appeared before us, in the person who entered the bath. As volunteers, our job was to instruct the pilgrims to remove their undergarments, wrap them in a cold, wet towel, and lead them gently to the first step into the stone bath. We would then quietly recite a prayer together, before leading the pilgrim into the chilly water. Tears were common at such an intimate spiritual moment—from the bathers and the volunteers. You can’t serve in the baths at Lourdes and remain untouched or unchanged.
We ended our Lourdes experience after a week, worn out but inspired, and feeling that we had participated in something extraordinary. Now back in the States, I have spent the last weeks trying to understand everything I saw and felt there. It’s an ongoing process.
I keep coming back, however, to something our team’s leader said to us as we prepared for our first session in the baths. “Each of these pilgrims is here for a reason that only they know,” he said. “Perhaps they are sorrowful, or in pain, or perhaps they are here to give thanks. Whatever the reason, they are asking the Virgin for something and they are allowing us the privilege to help them.” He then looked at each of us and continued: “God has brought each of you for here for a reason, too, and maybe not even the reason you think. No matter why you think you are here, you are also here to serve these pilgrims and one another.”
So that is one lesson from Lourdes that I am trying to carry with me. Whether at Lourdes or not, whether Catholic or not, whether faithful or not, each of us is a pilgrim in our own lives, as are the people around us: family, friends, work colleagues, strangers. For each, we have the opportunity to serve.
We have the opportunity to create Lourdes everywhere.
Richard Wells serves on the board of directors of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. He was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, and runs a consulting firm, The Wellynn Group, that focuses on marketing and communications. He and his wife live in Bala Cynwyd, PA, along with three children and three dogs. You may contact Richard at email@example.com.