- 23 Mar 20
Or is there? The decision of management to close Europe’s top Marian shrine at Lourdes, in France, in response to the coronavirus might seem surprising, given the alleged healing powers of the water there. Then again, people asked why Jamsie Gallagher broke a leg when he made the fateful journey...
Few will have disagreed with the ruling by the management of Europe’s top Marian shrine that it wouldn’t be a great idea in these times for a sniffling horde of suppurating pilgrims to converge on Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyénées for a communal splash in the sacred water. Lourdes has been closed.
A few cynics have argued that it should surely be no problem for water with curative properties bestowed by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself to shrivel a malevolent microbe like coronavirus. This is to misunderstand the inexplicable. The Mother of God, too, works in mysterious ways. Jesus didn’t take it from the back stone. Runs in the holy family.
In light of this, we might wonder at the cheerful response of the official shrine website to suggestions that no good can come of the spread of coronavirus: “This epidemic is, on the contrary, an opportunity to pray more and to ask for the intercession of Our Lady.”
You have to admit that’s a good one.
The annual Derry diocesan excursion to Lourdes used to be a seriously big deal. Not everybody in the diocese could afford to go. But everybody could take part by paying just a few pence for the spiritual pilgrimage.
You handed over half a crown (12 and a half pence in today’s devalued currency) for a little glossy card attesting to your bona fide pilgrim status. Thus validated, spiritual pilgrims were entitled to attend Benediction every night in the Cathedral beginning at the very instant the Derry pilgrims away in Lourdes knelt for the self-same ceremony. Hymns were sung in transcontinental stereo, rosaries recited in unison.
On the climactic day of the pilgrimage, the Derry contingent in Lourdes heard High Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary while, with precise timing and exact coordination, spiritual pilgrims back home in Derry began a word-for-word rendition of the same ceremony.
Spiritual pilgrims who followed the rules were guaranteed the same golden shower of sanctifying grace as irradiated the souls of them who had paid many multiples of half a crown for a seat on the Aer Lingus ‘plane out of Dublin. (My aunt Sophie refused to fly with any other airline, because you couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t be struck by lightning.)
And what happened to all those half-crowns? Into the coffers of the One True Church. Naturally enough.
You don’t hear much about the One True Church anymore. It’s drummed into our heads that, while Catholics are Catholics and Protestants are Protestants, we are all essentially one, worshipping the same God, sharing the same Christian values, and so forth.
This is a very limited but nonetheless alluring way to look at the world. There remains this obdurate difference between the denominations – that there never was a Protestant born who could have come up with a scam like the spiritual pilgrimage.
Don’t care how sectarian that sounds. They haven’t a clue.
(For the moment, in the North anyway, we can ignore all who don’t identify with either denomination. They probably won’t notice, what with their long experience of being regarded as irrelevant anyway.)
FIRST WAVE OF ATHEISM
Jamesie Gallagher was neither a full-fare nor a spiritual pilgrim. Instead, the street clubbed up to pay his way.
Jamesie was born with a condition which, although serious, didn’t have any immediate distressing symptoms. But it occurred to some in the community that it would be a Christian act to send him out to Lourdes on the off chance of a miracle. A collection was taken up ‘round the doors.
It would be wrong to suggest that any of those who contributed believed that they were entitled to a miracle for Jamesie in return. But there were high hopes.
On his way down to the grotto, Jamesie stumbled and broke a leg. He’d left town in jaunty style, but returned on crutches. Some who had tossed a few bob into the pot did begin to feel cheated. Fortunately, and rightly, a majority of these blamed Our Lady of Lourdes for failing to deploy her ‘fluence, not Jamesie for being a bit clumsy.
It’s hard to put a figure on these things, but I reckon that a sizable element of the first wave of atheism on our street arose from Our Lady letting Jamesie down.
Long time ago, a local entrepreneur by the name of Anselme Lacadé had a brilliant wheeze: to turn Lourdes into a spa town, with the unique selling point of magic water to cure all ills. To prove his point, he had a beaker brought from the grotto to the chemistry department of the University of Toulouse for analysis.
The scientists there identified oxygen, nitrogen, carbonic acid, hint of sulphate, magnesia, silicate, potassium, ammonia and iodine. No special properties, then. You could safely drink any amount of the stuff.
This did not tally with Émile Zola’s observations. The great novelist, dramatist, philosopher, political radical and much else observed in 1891 that: “The water in the pools is changed just twice a day…. You can imagine what a horrible slop it was at the end. There was everything in it: threads of blood, sloughed-off skin, scabs, bits of cloth and bandage, an abominable soup of ills... The miracle was that anyone emerged alive.”
Now there’s the sort of solid, informed, objective citizen we can all put our trust in at this challenging time.