Pope in France: Nothing says 'Catholic' like the Virgin Mary


Lourdes, France

A papal visit to Lourdes, arguably the premier Marian shrine and healing center in the Christian world, inevitably beckons reflection on two topics: the Virgin Mary and the theology of suffering. This evening, Benedict XVI delivered vintage versions of both.

2008 marks 150 years since, according to tradition, Mary appeared in Lourdes eighteen times to a 14-year-old local peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. Among other things, Mary is believed to have revealed the location of a hidden spring credited by devotees with the power to perform miraculous cures.

Despite skepticism from both civil and ecclesiastical authorities amid the rationalism and anti-clericalism of 19th century France, devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes spread rapidly. Bernadette was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1933.

At the retail level of religious imagery, nothing says “Catholic” quite like the Virgin Mary, and thus it’s hardly a surprise that such a consummate pope of Catholic identity as Benedict XVI would pay tribute to Mary at Lourdes.

In remarks to tens of thousands of pilgrims who braved cold and rainy weather to greet the pontiff, Benedict said Mary is “the sign of the victory of love, of good and of God, giving our world the hope that it needs.”

Perhaps the single best-known expression of Marian devotion is praying the rosary. Catholic tradition holds that the rosary was given by Mary to St. Dominic, and over the centuries it has become closely associated with Marian spirituality.

Benedict put special emphasis tonight on the rosary, saying that it has a “profoundly theocentric character.”

“When we pray it, Mary offers us her heart and her gaze in order to contemplate the life of her Son, Jesus Christ,” Benedict said.

Given popular faith in the healing properties of the waters at Lourdes, it is also a magnet for sick and disabled pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom come hoping for a miraculous cure.

Benedict expressed “profound communion with all who suffer.”

“We think of innocent victims who suffer from violence, war, terrorism and famine; those who bear the consequences of injustices, scourges and disasters, hatred and oppression; of attacks on their human dignity and fundamental rights; on their freedom to act and think,” the pope said.

“We also think of those undergoing family problems or suffering caused by unemployment, illness, infirmity, loneliness, or their situation as immigrants,” Benedict said. “Nor must we forget those who suffer for the name of Christ and die for him.”

Later, Benedict gently hinted that while there’s nothing wrong with praying for miraculous relief from suffering, it’s not the heart of what Lourdes – and, by extension, the Christian life – is about.

“How many come here to see it with the hope – secretly perhaps – of receiving some miracle,” the pope said. “Then, on the return journey, having had a spiritual experience of life in the church, they change their outlook upon God, upon others and upon themselves.”

“A small flame called hope, compassion, tenderness now dwells within them,” the pope said. “A quiet encounter with Bernadette and the Virgin Mary can change a person’s life.”

Bernadette famously held a candle during most of the periods when Mary is believed to have appeared to her, and Benedict repeatedly wove the imagery of light into his remarks tonight. He called upon Catholics to "live as children of light in order to testify, every day of your lives, that Christ is our light, our hope and our life."

Upon his arrival, Benedict moved through three of the four stops on the 2008 Jubilee itinerary at Lourdes: the baptismal font where Bernadette was baptized in her parish church; an old prison which had been converted into a dwelling and where Bernadette lived with her family as a child, known as the Cachot; and the grotto at Massabielle, where Bernadette saw “the Lady”. Tomorrow, he will visit the chapel where Bernadette received her first communion.

During his brief stop at the grotto, Benedict XVI drank from a glass containing the famed waters of Lourdes.

Aside from his general commitment to Mary as a classic marker of Catholic identity, Benedict has a special biographical connection to Bernadette. Her feast day, April 16, also happens to be the pope’s birthday.

Americans may be most familiar with the story of Lourdes from the famous film “The Song of Bernadette,” based on the Franz Werfel novel by the same name. The movie won four Academy Awards in 1944.

Lourdes draws an estimated six million visitors annually. Over 30 full-time chaplains serve at the sanctuary, along with 700 volunteers, and five religious communities plus one lay movement are devoted to providing spiritual and logistical help. The shrine has an annual budget of over $25 million, with more than 90 percent of those funds coming from donations.

While some trips take the pope onto unfriendly turf, Lourdes is undoubtedly one of the most deeply Catholic spots on earth, and the pilgrims gathered tonight showed keen enthusiasm for their shepherd. When the pope arrived for the conclusion of a torchlight procession, roars went up to such an extent that two priests actually had to shush the crowd before a gospel passage could be read.

John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:

Sept 15

Pope in France: A lesson in 'Marian cool'

Sept 14

Pope offers prayerful meditation on Eucharist: Jesus 'past, present and future'

Pope in France: Traditionalists deserve 'a place in the church'

The Cross, Mary, and hope for 'new vigor' in the Churchy

Sept 13

Pope tells shrunken church, 'Don't be afraid'

Lourdes: Nothing says 'Catholic' like the Virgin Mary

Explaining Benedict's discretion on Islam

Sept 12

No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'

Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'

Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain

Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'

Earlier stories

Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France

Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France

The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI

Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics

(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)

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