On the night I arrived at Lourdes, I made my way to an English language Mass. Facing the Grotto on the far side of the river Gave was a modern church, concrete and ascetically uninspiring, however, within minutes of walking into its packed auditorium a voice called my name, and turning I saw some familiar faces.
It was a family I had known back in England. They were not vacationing at Lourdes, just passing through, staying over the border in Spain. They were not supposed to have attended that particular Mass but somehow their plans had derailed and had ended up there nonetheless. And so we were reunited.
Afterwards we retired to a restaurant overlooking the Gave. The hostelry was an excellent choice: the food, the wine, the setting – but there proved to be another facet of that evening much more memorable.
The family consisted of two married lawyers with three small boys. He Catholic, she nominally Anglican – I say ‘nominal’ because they were married in a Catholic Church, the boys were brought up Catholic and she had attended Holy Mass faithfully throughout her married life, but still, inexplicably, she was not Catholic. When we lived in the same parish, I watched as she had attempted instruction not once but twice, only for it all to fall apart, and then she had left London to settle with her husband and family in Surrey. And that was that, or so I thought.
Now, reunited again by the river at Lourdes, the same river on whose banks St. Bernadette had had her visions in 1858, slowly and deliberately what had happened next was recounted to me…
It had all started with a French woman. She had died young, just twenty-four years old, and one who had barely left her small provincial town in Normandy. Her name: Therese Martin – also known as St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church. Her relics came to England in the fall of 2009, and as part of that tour they arrived at a small town in Kent. Our friends decided to go on pilgrimage there, not easy with three boys varying in ages from ten to two years old and combined with a car ride for hours. Inevitably, when they reached the church there was a queue; standing in line, they waited their turn. Hot and tired, the boys became restive. Finally, the family entered the church and there before them was a small casket holding the relics of the Carmelite saint. Whatever the boys’ expectations, it was not this – it appeared an anti-climax. Their mother was having none of it though, and ordered them to kneel down and pray, which they did. And, with that, they made to leave, but as they did so a stranger approached the mother. He had watched it all, and aware of what she had endured and how she had reacted said the following to her:
‘You will be given a gift from God for what you have done today…’
In the fall of 2010, Pope Benedict arrived in the United Kingdom to a nation indifferent if not openly hostile. Nevertheless, come he did, and like another Roman of old: came, saw and conquered – only this time it was the hearts of the British that were won.
For that occasion the boys were bundled onto a train bound for London as the family made its way to Hyde Park for Benediction at which the Pope was to preside. I was also present that evening, albeit in a different part of the park, but still remember it as a night like no other. I watched the huge television screens in the park as, past rows of sneering protesters, the Pope travelled serenely towards us as expectancy grew amongst the Faithful then corralled into the park by a heavy police presence. At last when he arrived, there followed the rising of the Monstrance. And as we fell to our knees in adoration of the Holy Eucharist, all London seemed to fall silent as a strange hush descended at that moment upon the city. And, then, as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone.
The Faithful made their way back to underground train stations past rows of taunting malcontents but the vitriol made little difference such was the supernatural sense of wonder now held in our hearts. This sense was no more pronounced than with that young mother for she too had watched the Pope arrive and ascend to the park’s temporary altar; she had watched as the Monstrance was taken in his hands and held aloft to London and to the World – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, as real as He who had hung upon the Cross outside another city. She had contemplated this living catechesis present before her eyes, and, with it, her heart dissolved, and as it did so she heard herself say: ‘What am I waiting for?’
A day or so later, a presbytery door was being hammered on. Surprised, the priest opened it.
‘I want to become a Catholic.’
‘Well, we have the RCIA [program for instruction]…’
The woman standing on that doorstep went on to tell him of her years married to a Catholic, the years of faithfully attending Holy Mass with her family, and her two abortive attempts at instruction… No, she wanted to be received into the Church – the Body of Christ: the same Body that had called to her when raised high by the Vicar of Christ himself in Hyde Park.
The priest explained he needed time, at least a little, to sort out practical matters. Nevertheless, a date was set a few weeks hence when the woman was to be received into the Church.
The night before the ceremony, however, something odd occurred. As she reached out for her copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church a card fell from it. Picking it from the floor, she beheld the face of St. Therese staring back at her. It was then she remembered the cryptic words spoken to her when the previous fall she had venerated that saint’s relics. She gazed at the card, then a thought struck her and as it did she glanced up at the calendar…
The date that had been fixed for her reception was one year after that fateful pilgrimage.
By now night was falling at Lourdes, and as it did so bells started calling pilgrims to the evening procession at the shrine, and so we too made our way to the Grotto.
Later, as my friends and I walked together in procession with thousands of others – sick and well, disabled and healthy, old and young – with candles held aloft, and the prayer of the Rosary rising ever higher into the night sky, I began to understand anew: this was indeed a place of miracles, and with some more mysterious than others if all the more beautiful for that.