By Regina Linskey
Catholic News Service
LOURDES, France (CNS) -- Every year, more than 6 million people -- including about 500,000 American Catholics -- travel to Lourdes, ask for healing and forgiveness, and often leave with a bottle of holy water.
But without the spiritual and historical context, such journeys and their traditions can seem odd.
Pilgrimages are as old as worship, according to Ann Ball, author of the "Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices." Prehistoric man felt the need to visit where his gods lived, the early Christians felt the need to visit where Jesus lived and the tradition continued, Ball said in the book.
Father Jeffrey Keefe, spiritual director of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, told Catholic News Service people participate in such pilgrimages because of a special devotion to Mary, and they often take a problem -- physical, spiritual or with relationships -- and offer it up to God at places "known to have good effects."
The New York-based Catholic organization recruits and organizes English-speaking volunteers and pilgrims for trips to the famous Lourdes' grotto, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous 150 years ago. The organization also offers virtual pilgrimages with a guided virtual tour on its Web site -- www.lourdesvolunteers.org -- for those who cannot travel to France.
The 13th time Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Mary asked her to tell the priests that people should come to Lourdes and that a chapel should be built. The first Marian procession took place May 12, 1858, and construction of the chapel began in 1862, the year the local bishop recognized the authenticity of the apparitions.
In 1866, two years after the first local pilgrimage from Loubajac, France, a railway was built connecting Lourdes to the rest of the country. In 1874, the first international pilgrims arrived from Belgium.
Today, people come from around the world to pray at the sanctuaries and visit the important sites related to St. Bernadette's life and her 18 Marian apparitions. And many pilgrims also take home a bottle of water from the Massabielle grotto, where Mary showed St. Bernadette a muddy spring and asked her to drink from it.
Lourdes is also a place where the sick and disabled visit to be healed. Sick pilgrims can stay at Accueil Notre-Dame, a sort of hotel-hospital, where each bed has an alarm bell and each unit has a doctor on call.
The Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes are nestled within the city. The churches are carved out of the Pyrenees Mountains, stacked above and below the grotto like a sandwich. Outside St. Michael's Gate -- the pathway connecting the sanctuaries to the rest of the city -- narrow, winding streets are filled with shops selling Catholic trinkets.
Although Mary did not specifically tell St. Bernadette in the apparitions to welcome the sick to Lourdes, the city has become a center for those seeking physical and mental healing as well as spiritual growth.
Marked by painted handicap signs on the pavement, lanes designated solely for those in wheelchairs line a pilgrim-packed narrow street around the city.
Several pilgrims said Feb. 10 that in the busy summer season, the streets are filled with people in wheelchairs and on stretchers as they are guided by volunteers to the important sites connected to St. Bernadette.
In the late-evening hours, tens of thousands of people from around the world throng the sanctuaries with candles in hand for the rosary procession. The people slowly snake around the Marian churches, illuminating the sanctuaries with flickering light.
The Catholic Church recognizes as miracles 67 cures attributed to Mary's intercession at Lourdes. Father Keefe said there are probably thousands more.
But the most important miracles of Lourdes are the growth and spiritual changes people have there, Father Keefe told CNS.
This year is particularly important as Catholics around the world celebrate Lourdes' jubilee year, which began Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and runs until this Dec. 8. Different events -- such as a joint Catholic-Anglican pilgrimage -- are planned for the year, and Pope Benedict XVI authorized a plenary indulgence, the remission of all punishment, to encourage renewed devotion.
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