I have spent most of the week in Lourdes, France, accompanying the Order of Malta in its Annual International Pilgrimage to the Marian shrine.
This year, Father Jonathan Gaspar, Father Kevin OíLeary and Father Dan Magni were all there accompanying the Order of Maltaís group from Boston and the infirm people that they take. I try to accompany them every other year.
Saturday morning was the Mass at the Grotto, where 151 years ago St. Bernadette had 18 visions of the Blessed Mother. I preached at the Mass and the whole American group was there. I think there were around 400 people in the American group. We were very blessed to have good weather while we were there.
On Sunday I celebrated Mass with thousands of people in the lower basilica, the basilica of St. Pius X. Iím not sure how many people it holds, maybe 10,000 or 20,000, but it was packed!
I celebrated the Mass in Latin and gave the sermon in French and English. The readings and music were done in many different languages, as well. There were many bishops who concelebrated on Sunday, as well as many priests. As far as American bishops that were with us, there was the Bishop of Trenton, Mort Smith; Bishop Frank Rodimer, the former Bishop of Paterson; and Bishop William Curlin the former Bishop of Charlotte.
The Boston group was quite large. Among them were many good friends like Jim and Anne OíConnor; Joe and Sheila Feitelberg; Gus Grace; Nancy Gibson; Sue Downing; and, of course, Hap and Sue Redgate, who were the pilgrimage chairs.
One of the most moving aspects of Lourdes is always the centrality of the sick pilgrims who are there. Iím sure that many go with the hope of a physical healing; but, even more importantly, I think that the large numbers of people who flock there are looking for spiritual strength and solidarity. There are certainly many conversions there, as well.
Certainly, the care given to the sick in Lourdes is something that is very inspiring and edifying. Many people who were with us were very seriously ill with cancer and life-threatening kinds of illnesses. Compared to other Marian shrines, it has the greatest emphasis on that compassion and service to the sick, and bringing them into contact with Godís loving mercy and healing power.
Since we had traveled all night we had not celebrated Mass, the day that we arrived they let us say Mass in a chapel in the basilica. The chapelís walls were completely covered with ex-votos -- votive offerings -- of people thanking the Blessed Mother for graces received.
The sacrament of reconciliation is also one of the many important activities of the shrine where many, many confessors are always hearing confessions in every language imaginable. It is such a popular place of pilgrimage!
It is interesting that in these days, when Mass participation has dropped off, the numbers of people visiting the pilgrimage sites throughout the world have increased. It shows that people still have a hunger for God and that so many of the people coming to the shrine are not just the active Catholics or the members of the Order of Malta and others like them, but all kinds of people really seeking God.