Every year, 6 million people make a pilgrimage to a rural town in southwestern France. Up to 25,000 people visit daily during peak season. Those with both obvious and hidden illness come from all over the world in hopes of healing in the Pyrenees.
Lourdes is home to a cave with a natural spring of what’s believed to be healing waters. The Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to a young girl in the cave in 1858. Today, 160 years later, 350,000 people bathe in the waters every year, 7,000 people have asked the Catholic Church to confirm their healings as a miracle, and 69 miraculous healings have been authenticated by the church.
When the Virgin Mary Visited Lourdes
A young girl of 14, named Bernadette, claimed that on February 11, 1858 a small woman wearing a white robe and blue sash with a rosary in hand and yellow roses on her feet appeared to her. The apparition asked Bernadette to pray the rosary with her.
Bernadette said the apparition was the Virgin Mary and she appeared to her 17 more times that year. She once asked for a chapel to be built at the place of her appearances and another time told Bernadette to dig a hole in that exact place and to drink and wash in the spring that came up. Locals say a few days after Bernadette dug the spring a woman immersed her injured arm in the water and was miraculously healed.
After an investigation was conducted by the church into Bernadette’s story, it was determined to be true and she was canonized as a saint in 1933. The Pope officially venerated Lourdes in 1870 and called for a cathedral to be built there. Now multiple cathedrals and chapels cover the grounds near the grotto.
Visiting Lourdes Today
Masses of hopeful people come from all walks of life to visit the grotto. Buddhists and Hindus, Catholics and superstitious are there. The wealthy and poor are there. Young and old. Black and white. Western and eastern. They all walk together—unified in their hope and expectation of healing. They fly, drive, and walk far for their chance to be miraculously restored.
Everyday, the diverse throngs of pilgrims wind their way up the narrow streets of Lourdes to get to the shrine. Merchants sell all manner of souvenirs and knick knacks. Everything from mugs, to night lights, to snow globes don images of Mary appearing to Bernadette in the Lourdes Grotto.
Travelers can purchase empty water vessels ranging in size from pocket jars all the way up to five-gallon vats to take up to the spring. The holy water runs through a system of pipes and out the side of the mountain where people can collect it from dozens of faucets, wash in it, or take it back home with them to a loved one in need.
Also for sale in every shop are candles—from small votives up to massive 5 foot pillars. Pilgrims carry them to the grotto and light them nearby, as a symbol of their prayers for the sick. Thousands of candles bear witness to sickness all over the globe. The larger ones hold the names of loved ones who’ve been prayed for there.
There’s a bathhouse next to the grotto. A waiting room outside hosts the infirm: children on stretchers, elderly in wheelchairs, men and women with walkers. They eagerly await their once-in-a-lifetime chance to be immersed in the healing waters of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Planting a Church Among a Desensitized People
For followers of Jesus Christ, the atmosphere in Lourdes is dark and discouraging. Christians know that it is “the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). The determination and expectation of 6 million pilgrims a year feels overwhelming.
The one and only Pioneers missionary there says, “In my town Mary takes Jesus’ place on the cross. People come from far and wide to bring honor to her, to ask her for healing, to pray to her. This is all the locals of this rural town in the mountains know: not Jesus, just millions of Catholic pilgrims from the whole world with their Mary statues, rosaries, and holy water. What should church look like for people who have been completely desensitized to the Gospel?”
Even now, that question is being answered. A house church gathers every other weekend in Lourdes. A small, but faithful, group meets in the home of the missionary there to worship, hear the Word of God proclaimed, and pray for one another. There is hope.
Sights are set on a building for sale in the center of town. An empty cafe sits just meters from where trains from all over Europe stop for pilgrims to disembark. The few Christians in Lourdes dream of buying it, renovating it, and bringing life to Lourdes.
The cafe would shine the true Light and welcome visitors to ponder Him who really heals. It would be a place where what has been used for harm is redeemed—a place where those who expect to meet Mary, instead have an encounter Jesus Christ who is, in fact, alive. A place where those who seek the healing of a physical infirmity, would instead receive restoration for their souls.
Pray with Pioneers that this cafe would be given into the hands of the church, if that is God’s will. Pray that it would be a place where those who seek temporary healing, actually receive eternal healing. A place to meet and believe in the Son so they may “not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). A place where those who want healed bodies actually get healed souls.