2008 is the marks 150 years since a sickly and ignorant Pyrenees peasant named Bernadette Soubirous experienced visions of a “beautiful lady” at a grubby pig-watering place called Massabielle.
During those visits, Bernadette was exhorted to pray, and to do penance for the sinfulness of humanity. She was instructed to give messages to the local priests, to tell them that the lady wished for a chapel to be built in her honor, and for “processions” to come.
In one dramatic instance, the “lady” instructed Bernadette to dig with her hands in a particular spot, and immediately there was revealed a spring whose waters still flow to the tune of 28,000 gallons per day, even in times of drought.
And the waters she revealed through her little visionary have brought immense healing.
To note the anniversary of this fascinating and consoling interaction between humanity and the Mother of the Christ, Paulist Press has released Lourdes; Font of Faith, Hope and Charity by Elizabeth Ficocelli, and I am highly recommending this informative, moving and faith-affirming book to you.
The book is a quick read, but its effect is powerful. Ficocelli succinctly covers the events of 1858 without reducing Bernadette to a pious caricature – indeed, she stresses how completely normal, but graced, was this visionary – and in recounting the initial miraculous healings attributed to the revealed spring, the author is almost matter-of-fact, which is persuasive. The author also runs the reader through the very rigid discovery process that guides the Catholic church in ruling healings as “miraculous” – and how that process may soon change – and makes pointed reference to the psychological and spiritual healings which take place there daily.
But it is in discussing the volunteers who help transport, bathe and console the millions of visitors to Lourdes that this book strikes its memorable and moving notes. There are in particular two stories, which render the reader awestruck, both at the workings of God, and at the graces which flow so freely to those who are willing to receive them.
Vittorio Michelli…informally he is referred to as Miracle Number 63. In 1962 when he was twenty-two and serving in the military, Mr. Micheli was discovered to have a malignant tumor on the left side of his pelvis. The cancer had eaten away much of his left hip and left him in excruciating pain. The disease was spreading rapidly…doctors declared him to be terminal. To please his brother, Mr. Micheli agreed to go to Lourdes but in truth he was rather indifferent about the whole matter. During his pilgrimage, nothing notable happened, except he bathed his good leg, as his affected leg was in a cast from the pelvis to the foot.
When he returned home, [he] experienced a rapid return to health. His appetite came back and chronic pain subsided. WIthin two months he was able to walk again, and X rays revealed a remarkable and inexplicable reconstruction of his hip. Since 1963 the Italian has returned to Lourdes every year…serving as a stretcher bearer, to serve other afflicted pilgrims.
There are other inspiring stories and quotes, from the ordinary people who have participated in the extraordinary, throughout the book. Parts made me weep.
For five decades, Philippe has served [as a volunteer] in all possible capacities…”The sick are for us, the image of Christ suffering,” [he said] “we must be for them the image of the compassionate Christ.”
The story about Marlene Watkins, an American who, in 2000, visited Lourdes as the rather disinterested guest of a friend, and who has since founded an organization bringing hundreds of North American volunteers to Lourdes is remarkable enough – poignant, funny, surprising, awe-inspiring and ultimately humbling – to warrant a future book.
In fact, Watkins’ story – and Ficocelli’s perspective of Lourdes in the 21st century – would make a terrific film.
Do yourself a favor, particularly if – in this bleak mid-winter full of election noise and bloviation – you feel the need to be refreshed and uplifted, and pick up this book. It will have something to say to you.