Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

On a tour for the soul
Sakal Times, Pune

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 AT 03:03 PM (IST)
Tags: Spice,   here & there,   travel,   France,   Paris,   Lourdes pilgrimage,   Camil Parkhe

Camil Parkhe shares a glimpse of the famous Lourdes pilgrimage in south-western France that attracts devout Catholics from across the world
We were travelling in a high-speed TGV bullet train from Paris to Lourdes. As as we approached our destination, I realised the passengers in our compartment could be the pilgrims. There were three couples with teenaged children; a young nun travelling with her septuagenarian father; and my wife, daughter and I were heading towards the world’s most famous Marian pilgrimage centre.
Lourdes station is a couple of kilometres away from the pilgrimage site. Soon after getting refreshed at the hotel, we hurriedly left for the shrine to attend the evening prayer service there. There were thousands of people on the streets, all of them proceedings to the same destination — the Lourdes shrine. Majority of them were Europeans, but there were also some people, like us, from other continents. We reached the huge grounds in front of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and joined the multi-lingual Rosary prayer there.
Mother Mary is believed to have appeared to teenager Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes 18 times in 1858. Bernadette has indeed transformed this otherwise insignificant town in south-western France. Due to the apparitions, Lourdes today is the third most important Catholic pilgrimage in the world, after the Vatican in Rome and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. After Paris, Lourdes is also the second city in France having maximum number of hotels. In fact, during our three-day visit there, I noticed there were few residential buildings but more hotels and shops, and other commercial centres, catering to the pilgrim tourists in the town.
The population of Lourdes is only about 16,000, but the town receives six millions pilgrims and visitors  every year. About 60,000 of these visitors are ill or physically challenged. I saw many such people being taken around in wheelchairs by nurses who wore blue tunic. They are not nuns, but health workers, I was told. I realised that banking on millions of devout visitors, Lourdes has turned itself into a major ‘pilgrim tourism’ centre of the world.
The major attraction in the evening was the candlelight procession in front of the Basilica. It is indeed a sight to watch, with statue of Mother Mary being carried by the faithful lot. A priest accompanying us told that the huge congregation is a wonderful example of how faith in Mother Mary gets strengthened.
Next morning, we attended a mass celebrated at the famous Grotto, the very site where Mother Mary is believed to have appeared to Bernadette. There is a statue of Mary in white robes and with folded hands, replicas of which can be seen across the world.
On the third day, we attended another mass celebrated by a cardinal in an impressive underground church, the Basilica of St Pius X, which is built under a garden. The mass at the underground church and the prayers at the Mary’s statue is a must for any visiting pilgrim.
A pilgrimage to Lourdes, like visit to the Vatican, is indeed a dream tour for any Catholic. But even for others, a visit to Lourdes, with its picturesque surroundings, can be a refreshing holiday.

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