Interview: On Lourdes and St. Bernadette
Elizabeth Ficocelli, author of "Lourdes: Font of Faith, Hope and Charity" is interviewed on the Pilgrimage site and the life of St. Bernadette.
In this interview with us, Ficocelli comments on the popularity of the pilgrimage site, her own experience at Lourdes, and what she hopes Benedict XVI will highlight during his Sept. 13-15 visit there.
Q: What is the particular draw to Lourdes, especially from those who visit the shrine from abroad?
Ficocelli: There are many factors that draw people to Lourdes, even across oceans and continents. Certainly, there is still the hope for physical miracles, as there has been since the earliest days of the apparitions. This is evidenced by the number of pilgrims with physical illness and disability that visit the shrine each year from all parts of the world -- upward of 70,000 -- and the 100,000 volunteers who travel with these individuals to assist them during their pilgrimage.
Less visible, but in no means less important, are the pilgrims who come to Lourdes in hopes for mental and emotional healing. This can include the healing of depression, bipolar disease, and addictions of all kinds.
Of course, individuals are also drawn to Lourdes for spiritual reasons. Some come in thanksgiving for favors bestowed upon them. Others come out of respect for Our Lady and the messages of prayer and penance she imparted in the grotto.
Many pilgrims to Lourdes -- including myself -- have found themselves surprised at the spiritual conversion they experience at the shrine during poignant moments such as participating in the processions, being lowered into the baths, or making a deep and heartfelt confession.
Q: What special challenges did you face as an English-speaking journalist writing a book on Lourdes?
Ficocelli: My first challenge in taking on this assignment was that I had never been to Lourdes myself. God resolved this perfectly, as I was invited to join a special needs pilgrimage organized by Our Lady of Lourdes North American Volunteers, an organization founded by Marlene Watkins, who herself had a profound conversion experience at Lourdes. My traveling companions gave me an insider's look at what it is to serve and be served at this popular Marian shrine.
As a naive American, I assumed everyone in France would speak English. I quickly discovered this was an incorrect notion. Far from the metropolitan center of Paris, Lourdes is nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France, not far from the Spanish border. The popular languages spoken at the shrine are French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and then English. Therefore, I needed to have translators for most of the people I interviewed.
It was important to me that I did not merely report on Lourdes as a news story. My intention was to fully immerse myself in the experience of being a first-time Catholic pilgrim to the shrine. Although at times it was challenging to change hats from conducting interviews to entering prayerfully into the experience of Lourdes, I feel the blend of historic reporting and personal reflection has greatly strengthened the book.
Q: You had unprecedented access to some key personnel at Lourdes. How did this come about and what did this achieve for your book?
Ficocelli: I must credit God for every aspect of this book, from the invitation to write it to my pilgrimage experience and the unprecedented access I had to key personnel at Lourdes. Marlene Watkins, whom I mentioned above, was the first important door that God opened for me. This "veteran" of Lourdes introduced me to Father Regis-Marie de La Teyssonniere, an invaluable resource.
Father Regis-Marie served as the father general at Lourdes for over 10 years. He is a leading expert, author, and speaker on the apparitions, second only to the great Marian theologian, Father Rene Laurentin.
Fortunately for me, Father Regis-Marie spoke English. He graciously agreed to review my manuscript carefully for any inaccuracies in the telling of the history of the apparitions that seem to have crept into numerous books about Lourdes. Father also arranged for me to interview several important figures at the shrine including Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes; Father Patrick-Louis Desprez, general chaplain; Dr. Patrick Theillier, medical director; Gabriel Barbry, former president of hospitality; Philippe Tardy-Joubert, International Hospitality Conference coordinator; Father Raymond Zambelli, rector; Pierre Adias, communications director, numerous chaplains, volunteers and others.
These fascinating interviews allowed me to present a unique view of the shrine today and its importance for the future. Specifically, I was able to explore for my readers the complex process of authenticating miracles at Lourdes; the powerful spiritual conversion that happens daily in the confessionals as witnessed by the chaplains who serve there; the unparalleled network of volunteerism at the shrine and its significant effect on all pilgrims; the personal recollections of eyewitnesses to the historic visits of Pope John Paul II to Lourdes; and how the shrine is qualified and ready to contribute to the efforts of the universal Church to evangelize the world.
Q: What misconceptions about the shrine did you find in researching this book?
Ficocelli: There are those in the Catholic faith today that would like to categorize Lourdes as "pre-Vatican II spirituality" -- in other words, something that is quaint and perhaps borderline superstitious, but not really relevant for the modern world.
I feel nothing could be further from the truth. My experience in researching and writing this book proved to me that Lourdes is an important center of Catholicity, a place where our faith is alive and vibrant and appealing to people of all ages, life styles, and even religious beliefs.
For example, if your concept of Lourdes is that it is a place for rosary-wielding little old ladies, you will be surprised at the strong presence of young people who visit and work at the shrine. Lourdes is a magnet for teenagers from all over the world. They can really identify with Bernadette Soubirous, who was 14 years old at the time of the apparitions. Bernadette is an icon for young Catholics that they, too, can be powerful instruments in changing the world when they say "yes" to God. Young people find themselves not only welcomed, but needed at the shrine, because many of the volunteer positions demand the physical strength, stamina and exuberance characteristic of the young.
Secondly, Lourdes is not merely a Catholic phenomenon. Certainly, the far majority of pilgrims who visit are Catholic. But the shrine also attracts Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists -- including the Dalai Lama himself -- who recognize Lourdes as an important spiritual center for the world today. Even atheists have been known to come to the shrine, mostly out of curiosity, trying to understand the powerful attraction of such places. Many people have converted because of their positive experience at Lourdes.
Finally, Lourdes has great relevance not only for today, but for the future of our Church. It is not, insists Bishop Jacques Perrier, a historical museum to commemorate an event of the past. Rather, it is a living sanctuary that continues to lead people to a deeper spirituality. This is why he has worked diligently with leaders of pilgrimage organizations throughout Europe to discern specific areas in which Lourdes can offer the universal Church input and expertise. These areas include the mission of the Church in relation to the sick, to people with disabilities, to young people, to peace, to Mary, to the promotion of the Eucharist, to the service of others, to the marginalized, to the nations, to the unity of Christians and to interreligious dialogue.
Q: Just at the time you were accepting this assignment, Lourdes was making headlines around the world. It seems there was talk of proposing a new way to approach the subject of healings and miracles that take place at the shrine on a regular basis. Can you tell us more about that?
Ficocelli: Since the apparitions took place 150 years ago, millions of people have visited Lourdes. Generations of people have credited the shrine and its healing waters for miraculous outcomes. But if you look at the number of Church-approved miracles, you'll see a different story: There are only 67. Why so few?
According to Dr. Patrick Theiller, medical director at Lourdes, the disparity is the result of three factors. First, the criteria used to evaluate miracles -- the same criteria used today to authenticate miracles in the process of canonization -- were established in 1734. These criteria exclude spiritual and psychological cures, as these cannot be measured scientifically. This automatically eliminates a significant number of healings that people experience at Lourdes.
Second, not every pilgrim who experiences a profound improvement in his or her physical health wishes to undergo the intense and lengthy examination process required for a cure to be authenticated -- or the publicity that often goes with it. A cure recipient, for example, is expected to return to the medical bureau at Lourdes several times over the course of five or more years to prove that a cure is lasting. This is simply not possible for all people, especially those coming from far distances.
Third, the process requires the consent and cooperation of the individual's personal physician at home and, even more importantly, his or her bishop. Often times, doctors and bishops do not wish to or are unable to get involved in such matters. According to Dr. Theillier, there are more than 7,000 reports of scientifically inexplicable cures on file with the medical bureau that lack some requirement to allow them to advance to the final stage of being deemed miraculous.
In order for Lourdes to be able to present to the world a more balanced picture of what actually is happening at the shrine, the bishop and medical director have appealed to Rome. Their intent is not to change the way the Church authenticates miracles. Rather, they seek to create a new category of "authenticated healings."
The new category would by no means reduce the stringent evaluation process. The person's condition would still need to be medically verified as serious and its reversal as scientifically inexplicable. It would, however, for the first time feature the added dimension of assessing the spiritual benefits of the healing as well. And it would enable a person to testify to their healing and spiritual conversion in their parishes and on retreat, which they do not have Church approval to do currently.
Another important step is that Lourdes, through its International Medical Committee that meets annually in Paris, is also seriously reflecting on the pertinence of healing in cases involving psychological and mental diseases, and how these can be evaluated and presented.
Q: As the Holy Father prepares to visit Lourdes during the Jubilee Year marking the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions, what aspects of the apparitions would you like to see him underline?
Ficocelli: Benedict XVI has already made it abundantly clear that he echoes the importance of Lourdes and its Gospel message of prayer, penance and conversion for the world today that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II established during his pontificate.
For starters, Benedict XVI continues the tradition of World Day of the Sick that Pope John Paul II initiated to bring awareness to the dignity of those with illness and disability. He also instituted a plenary indulgence for those able to visit Lourdes during this special Jubilee Year to walk and pray in the footsteps of St. Bernadette. For those unable to travel to France, many dioceses have responded by offering pilgrimage opportunities at local shrines and parishes dedicated to St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes.
Finally, Benedict XVI, who has traveled far less than his predecessor, announced his own papal pilgrimage to Lourdes in September, placing a great deal of importance on these particular apparitions for a world so desperately in need of faith, hope and charity.
I am sure the Holy Father will continue to underscore the importance for all Christians to demonstrate care and respect for people with illness and disability, a fundamental Gospel value.I would expect him to draw attention to the relevance and power of the Eucharist and confession, two central areas of focus at Lourdes, and to the Blessed Mother who graces us throughout history with messages or encouragement and correction, as any loving mother would do for her children.
Lastly, I would like to see Benedict XVI emphasize the example of St. Bernadette, who willingly made countless acts of penance for the sins of others, and who committed her life to growing in personal holiness. Our current world, absorbed in pleasure and matters of self, could learn much from St. Bernadette's humble, simple and others-directed spirituality.
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