Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
MIAMI | Catholics at Our Lady of Lourdes Church cast their burdens aside and experienced spiritual refreshment in the healing waters of Lourdes in southern France — only sans les bagages et turbulence.
They journeyed spiritually to the Pyrenees mountain oasis near the border with Spain on a virtual Lenten pilgrimage March 8, during which they dipped their hands in bowls of water from the spring where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette and touched pieces of the grotto rock.
As they drank the living water and inhaled the Spirit in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, they reflected on the Lourdes message of love, service and compassion toward the suffering in their midst. The international pilgrimage site attracts around 6 million visitors yearly.
Fanny Garcia-Dubus said she was inspired to assist the infirmed at Lourdes after attending a previous virtual pilgrimage.
“It’s giving of yourself to others without expecting anything else back. That is what moved me to serve those in need who can’t move from a wheelchair or stand by themselves or take off their shoes,” said Garcia-Dubus, an event organizer. “Those organizers put everything together to facilitate those like us that are healthy to go and serve the sick from all over the world. You meet people from everywhere in Lourdes. It just moves you to want to go and serve and help others.”
A reverent spirit imbued the program as participants meditated on Marian devotional music and viewed projected picturesque Lourdes photos including the Gothic Revival Basilica of the Immaculate Conception built atop the grotto. White and pink roses and statues of Mary and St. Bernadette graced the altar.
Introducing Lourdes’ Gospel message was Marlene Watkins, president of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, an organization that leads virtual pilgrimages worldwide. NAV also coordinates trips to Lourdes, which draw around 8,000 volunteers yearly.
The West Kendall parish is building its “Lourdes to Lourdes” connection and will host its fourth year of pilgrimage trips this year for youths, special needs pilgrims and volunteers.
Watkins told the story of St. Bernadette, a beautiful, petite 14-year-old in the unknown town of Lourdes whose family faced poverty after her father, a miller, suffered an eye injury. Likewise, “you are called to live a holy life in the family you are in,” said Watkins, who has travelled to Lourdes over 100 times.
Calling herself the Immaculate Conception, Mary appeared to St. Bernadette above a rosebush in the grotto 18 times and made requests to pray, do acts of penance, uncover the underground spring, build a chapel and come in procession. Mary promised heavenly peace for those who follow the Lord and offer him their suffering.
Following the apparitions, the sick immediately began to experience healing there from touching the “liquid grace” spring water of the grotto, “touchstone of heaven,” said Watkins.
After entering religious life, St. Bernadette died of tuberculosis at age 35. Upon exhumation her body was uncorrupted and now lies in a crystal coffin in a convent in Nevers.
The Lourdes medical committee has officially documented 69 miraculous healings using canonizations standards, with 7,000 currently open cases. Among them is volunteer Micheli Vittorio who in 1963 experienced healing from an incurable malignant hip tumor. After stepping into the sanctuary bath, “immediately he knew something happened.”
“It happened for you” to show God’s power, Watkins said. “Three fourths of the Gospel stories are about Christ and the miracles he performed.”
St. John Paul II first visited Lourdes in 1983 and celebrated Mass before some 25,000 teens, after which he established World Youth Day. He returned in a wheelchair in 2004, calling it a “school of prayer” where Mary teaches one to lovingly contemplate Christ. People also find healing from addictions, mental illness and emotional pain.
“There are beautiful healings at Lourdes. Maybe you can ask God for whatever healing you might need just like in France this evening,” Watkins said. “We hope you’ll feel a little like you’ve been to Lourdes without the turbulence.”
And only in Lourdes did Mary ask for a procession. “That is why we bring the sick. That is why we bring the youth and volunteers. They are literally the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, feeding the sick, pushing wheelchairs, serving meals,” she said.
Following the Lourdes tradition, parishioners held candles and processed while reciting the rosary through the parking lot, ending at the parish’s replica of the grotto. They took home mini bottles of Lourdes spring water.
Maria Pasos said she found spiritual nourishment. “I love my faith and I love the Lord deeply and the more I know about him the more I want to learn. And Lourdes is a place I’d love to go to pray for healing for me and my family,” she said.
Magda Villa also savored the experience. “The healing was very profound. …It was just wonderful. She (Watkins) was such a good speaker. I just felt like I was in Lourdes again,” she said, recalling its “procession of the rosary with all the different languages, candles lit up.”
Later, Msgr. Kenneth Schwanger, the church’s pastor, enthusiastically revealed the large mural in the parish hall depicting St. Bernadette’s life and parishioners serving at Lourdes’ sanctuary baths. One photo shows him at a train station alongside Vittorio, the Italian who was miraculously healed, who is the leader of the parish’s Miami airport ministry to assist pilgrims.
A primary lesson of Lourdes is to put the sick first in caring for them and acknowledging their dignity, Msgr. Schwanger said. Back at the parish, members are working to “be more loving as a parish family” and more intentional in supporting the sick, from webcasting the parish Mass to having eucharistic ministers matched with homebound in their own neighborhood.
“You realize that everybody is suffering from something so it’s not just the sick that you welcome and are attentive to and kind to but everybody,” Msgr. Schwanger said. “Bringing that spirit of Bernadette into the parish is to help in any way you can every person come to Jesus in whatever way. It sets you free from yourself and helps you to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, which is a way that the Lord uses us to bring us healing and life as well.”
And hope abounds at Lourdes, he added. “Everyone who goes to Lourdes says that it is such a peaceful, happy place and it’s because God is present and there is a peacefulness and happiness that is beyond one’s current struggle.”
Organizer Dubus said she strives to live in that spirit.
“It changed the way I see my brothers and sisters, that somehow after my experience serving there I can be more aware of their pain, psychological or spiritual or physical,” she reflected. “You start thinking about the needs of others more than before. You get a close encounter with our Blessed Mother and a close encounter with Jesus.”