By Isabelle Cousturié
LOURDES, France, FEB. 20, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The bishop of Lourdes says the pilgrimage site in his diocese is like a promise that never betrays.
That’s how Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes et Lourdes described the spot on Feb. 10, eve of the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, during his homily at Mass celebrated in the grotto. “The apparitions in Lourdes,” the bishop said, “like Lent, propose to us the same question, that of hope, to which our Pope has dedicated his second encyclical. In what do we place our hope? What are we ready to do to enter into the great hope?”
At the beginning of this jubilee year marking the 150th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous, the prelate spoke with ZENIT about the current relevance of the message left by the “beautiful lady.”
Q: In this year of special importance for your diocese, what message would you live to give to the faithful and pilgrims?
Bishop Perrier: If they come to Lourdes, they will be welcomed with warmth, and something very simple will be proposed to them: to follow the path of the jubilee, made up of four stages — the baptistery, where Bernadette was baptized; the ancient prison, which is a place typically evangelical; and naturally the sanctuaries; and the oratory where Bernadette received her First Communion.
Therefore, the message is to demonstrate that the phenomenon of the apparitions are framed within a Christian life, which is the Christian life of Bernadette and the Christian life of the parish of Lourdes. It is necessary to try to propose again the itinerary of a pilgrimage, which is a methodology currently in vogue, in the framework of an ordinary Christian life, in the Eucharist, even though today the number of priests has gone down a lot compared to other eras.
Those who come can trace this path. The message of Lourdes is not essentially in words, but rather in actions, words, gestures all taken together, to enter into the spirit of the apparitions, through this itinerary by means of the four points of the city and the sanctuaries.
And for all those who cannot come, there are ways to unite yourselves from afar. [The Web site is in six languages, including English.] A retreat, or more precisely a novena, has been made, to associate oneself with the path of the jubilee, because for us, it is important that these people too can live the spirit of the jubilee, given that they don’t have the possibility of being physically present, because of a lack of time or due to financial reasons.
Q: This jubilee year is an occasion to follow the footsteps of Bernadette Soubirous and rediscover the message the Virgin Mary gave us through her. Could you remind us of this message and tell us what is the current situation?
Bishop Perrier: There are various elements to the message. There is a strictly evangelical and constant aspect, which [is] that God chooses the humble and the little ones, because Bernadette was, moreover, uneducated. She was intelligent but she was not educated. She did not know how to read or write. She didn’t go to catechesis and she belonged to a bankrupt family.
There is also the aspect of prayer: All of the episodes of the apparitions take place entirely in a climate of prayer. And there is, as well, the aspect of trust, that is, that the Virgin and Bernadette speak to each other, and sometimes don’t even say anything. The encounter takes place in silence on 18 occasions. There is, thus, this type of cooperation, of reciprocal familiarity between Bernadette and the Lady. And something of this remains. In Lourdes, people are not afraid. And that’s why there are so many people. She presents herself as someone who can understand everything and can welcome everything.
And there’s an aspect of penance that can’t be forgotten. This aspect does not appear at the beginning nor at the end of the apparitions, but rather in the middle. Five of the apparitions are very focused on penance and during a time of penance is when the fountain is discovered, which today is very associated with Lourdes, because immediately Lourdes was spread around the world.
And then, there is the name. Finally the Virgin wanted to say her name. She ended saying “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Thus, there is total purity, there is complete innocence, this perfect integrity of liberty.
As you can see, there are many aspects in this message. And precisely because there are a lot, everyone can find something. In any case, this is not a message that can be summarized only in the few words that have been repeated. The message includes as well the gestures, the attitudes, the time that has passed. All of this is the message. It is like in the Gospel: There are not just the words of the Gospel that Christ proclaimed; it is the whole of the life of Christ to which the Gospels bear witness.
Q: Compared to the past, what are the expectations of the faithful and the pilgrims who come to Lourdes?
Bishop Perrier: There are two answers to your question. The first is that no one can know precisely because the people who come here are not questioned. They are not pressed with questions; they aren’t submitted to surveys. They don’t have to fill out questionnaires. They are not told: If you want “x” or “y,” stand in the line on the left; if you want “a” or “b,” the line on the right. Each one is left a great spiritual liberty. Thus, from this point of view, we do not have an opinion survey. We don’t have objectives like those who do marketing.
Regarding the motivations of the people, one could note a certain constancy, rather than a great renewal. Both theses could be maintained. I’m not so sure that the motivations of today are that different from those of a century ago, as could be thought. The world has changed, but I’m not sure that in the depths of his heart, man has changed in this regard, because in the end, it’s notable that the same signs attract people: the rock, the grotto, the water, the light. One hundred and fifty years ago, it was like it is now. What that means is that all of this goes to the depths of the human being.
Q: The fact that the figure of the believer has changed today, that his way of acting has become an interior, more personal obligation — does that influence the behavior of the pilgrims or the faithful in their way of showing today their love for Lourdes?
Bishop Perrier: Pilgrimages in Christianity have never been obligatory so they are not despised by our generation as a duty. I think that they have always been the object of a truly volunteer spirit. So I think that corresponds very well with today: All of the pilgrimage spots, the sanctuaries, in all religions, get along well with current times.
This is both good and not so good. It’s good because it allows this spiritual dimension of the human being to manifest itself, to not be totally repressed. The totalitarian regimes have always tried to impede pilgrimage spots. Under the Polish communist regime, it was impossible to find a sign showing the way to Czestochowa. Thus, it’s true that this [dimension] exists, but it’s not enough, because a Christian life cannot be built, not to mention a militant or committed life, only with the fact of going infrequently to a pilgrimage spot every few years. But it’s better than nothing. Thus, pilgrimages and sanctuaries have a recognized place today in evangelization.
Q: For many years, a pilgrimage has been seen from the outside as a request for a miraculous cure. Is that still true?
Bishop Perrier: I don’t think anyone comes for starters because of that. Certainly in the history of Lourdes, this has had an important place. But I think that today, healing is spoken of in all senses of the word. It can be the healing of a relationship, a more psychological healing, a physical healing, an interior healing. Then there’s reconciliation. So it’s something very open. The word healing now has a greater connotation, not just a physical sense.
Q: Last year, you saw a necessity to take a position on the question of the healings and miracles linked to Lourdes, defining new focuses, before the healings. Why did you see that as necessary?
Bishop Perrier: Because medicine has changed so much that applying traditional criteria has become very difficult. We have entered into an era of probabilities. They tell us that there are great probabilities that this person has had such-and-such disease and that effectively he had very little opportunity of being healed of it. But rarely will they tell us that it is absolutely, 100% certain that this person had such-and-such a disease and that it is absolutely certain that he would have died three days later.
The doctor of today talks of prognoses of life. Now then, the criteria normally oblige speaking in a formal and absolute way: “Yes, she had such-and-such sickness and it was totally incurable.” Today, you don’t talk like that. So, it’s not that theology has changed, but rather that medicine has changed.
Q: Do you still receive a lot of petitions to recognize miraculous cures?
Bishop Perrier: Every year, about 40 cases are presented to the medical offices, but it is known that this is a low percentage of those people who, in fact, have benefited from a cure, from a grace. Many people don’t realize this process exists. And among those who know, many are not interested in presenting their case. To get into the process of recognizing [the cure] is a maze, so it’s obvious people don’t want to start it.
It has to be recognized that it’s very complicated as a process. […] On the other hand, countless very old testimonies are received, of things that happened 50 years ago.
Lourdes has had a worldwide projection almost since the beginning. This continues, so we take advantage of the means offered today so that people can unite themselves to our thanksgiving.