(THE CONVERSATION) Thousands of apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported by Christians around the world, from 4th century Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, to contemporary California. Of all these, the most famous are the visions of Our Lady of Lourdes, reported in the mid-19th century by a teenage girl in the French Pyrenees.
Since then, devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes has captured the Catholic imagination. Lourdes is one of the few apparitions that the Vatican has officially recommended as trustworthy, with its own feast day, February 11, in the church’s annual liturgical calendar.
Some 6 million pilgrims come to the sanctuary in Lourdes, France each year to pray and seek healing.
This popular pilgrimage is one of the most visible examples of many Catholics’ devotion to Mary. I am a Jesuit priest and theologian whose research focuses on Mariology, the academic study of ideas about Mary in Christian history.
Some 6 million pilgrims come to the sanctuary in Lourdes, France, every year to pray and seek healing.
The Lady in the Grotto
In 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous reported having had 18 visions of a beautiful “damsel” in a grotto near Lourdes, then a provincial town. Soubirous said the figure identified herself as “the Immaculate Conception” and asked the young girl to dig in the dirt and drink the water she found there. In other messages, the lady requested that a church be built there so that the priests could come in procession.
Reports of the events drew large crowds who believed them to be apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and many people began to attribute healing properties to the spring waters. These extraordinary events soon attracted the attention of the Parisian press and won the support of the French imperial court.
Many Catholics interpreted the apparitions as confirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Pope Pius IX in 1854 declared to be an essential part of the Catholic faith. This teaching holds that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin – the incomplete union with God with which, according to Catholic belief, everyone is born as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. to God in the Garden of Eden.
Many Catholics have interpreted the apparitions as confirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Church officials were quickly alerted to Soubirous’ experiences and at first became concerned about the veracity of his account. After investigation, the local bishop became convinced that Mary had indeed appeared to the young woman. Popes later encouraged veneration at Lourdes, and in 1933 Soubirous herself was canonized as Saint Bernadette.
Catholic churches, schools, and hospitals soon began to be dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and replicas of the grotto, or “grotto,” are found throughout the world today. These sites are built for the faithful who cannot make the pilgrimage but who seek to share the experience of Lourdes.
Researching popular Catholic devotions has taught me that apparitions attract skeptics as easily as crowds of enthusiastic believers. They also arouse religious and political controversies.
From the start, church officials in Lourdes sought to deny claims of direct supernatural intervention for remedies that could be explained scientifically instead. Today, doctors from the International Medical Committee of Lourdes are conducting a rigorous process of investigating claims of miraculous cures.
Most reported healings turn out to have purely natural causes, but if the committee cannot find a medical explanation, they refer the case to the local bishop for investigation. Since the 1860s, church officials have officially declared 70 of Lourdes’ healings to be miracles. The most recent case, which they confirmed in 2018, involved the healing of a French nun who used a wheelchair and suffered severe pain for almost 30 years, but recovered shortly after her pilgrimage to the grotto. .
During the 20th century, the number of new miracles confirmed in Lourdes gradually slowed due to the growth of scientific knowledge.
Since the 1860s, church officials have officially declared 70 of Lourdes’ healings to be miracles.
In 2006, church officials said that beyond “miracles”, they would recognize three additional categories of healings at Lourdes, in light of advances in medical knowledge: “unexpected”, “confirmed” or “exceptional” healings . The new categories relax the previous strict division between “natural” and “supernatural” healings, with the implication that God intervenes in many cases where health is restored, even those not strictly qualifying as “miracles” in the sense traditionally used by the Catholic Church.
Devotion goes digital
Although the number of officially recognized miracles has decreased, popular faith in Lourdes is stronger than ever. Understanding that illness and healing involve psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects as well as physical ones helps explain some of Lourdes’ continued appeal to many contemporary Catholics.
Devotional practices involve the sensory experiences of seeing, touching, tasting and hearing. Visitors come from all over the world to light candles in the grotto, touch the rock where Soubirous says the Virgin appeared, join in the chanting of the twice-daily processions, attend mass, take communion, bathe and drink the holy waters of the cave. spring.
Psychologically, being in the company of large crowds of other believers reinforces the social identity of the faith, as does seeing sick pilgrims treated with dignity and honor.
Understanding that illness and healing involve psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects as well as physical ones helps explain some of Lourdes’ continued appeal to many contemporary Catholics.
Many family members, friends, spiritual advisers and volunteers from international Catholic organizations, such as the Order of Malta, accompany visitors who are too ill to travel alone. The physical labor of caring for the sick affects people spiritually. I visited Lourdes several times as an auxiliary and chaplain and I heard many confessions there. I know that many who volunteer their time as caregivers – including people who are not practicing Catholics or even Christians – return home with deep gratitude for their own health and a more vibrant faith. .
For two months in 2020, the Lourdes sanctuary closed for the first time in its history due to the pandemic. Since then, the live broadcast from the cave has attracted an even wider audience. His dedicated YouTube channel and other social media outlets are virtual 21st-century equivalents of replica caves built in churches, schools, hospitals and homes around the world.
Skeptics will likely continue to dispute claims of miraculous healings and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. For millions, however, Lourdes will unquestionably continue to be an important religious symbol of comfort and care, and a synonym for healing and hope.