Experiencing the grace of Lourdes without leaving home

As people filled the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Nov. 16, a member of the Cathedral choir sang the Ave Maria. Photographs of Lourdes in the days of Bernadette and today scrolled across the screen, enthralling viewers. Grotto stones were displayed on a table, soon to be touched by the assembly. Fran Salaun of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers guided those present on a virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — The term “virtual experience” may be familiar, but a Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience is unlike any other. Those in attendance can experience Lourdes, the faith, the candlelit procession, the Grotto stones, the waters and the prayerfulness even if a trip to France is just a dream. Several hundred men, women and children gathered at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown Nov. 16 to participate in such a Lourdes Virtual Experience.

A number of participants arrived in wheelchairs, struggling with canes or walkers, even clutching the arm of an attendant friend or family member while walking slowly.

The virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes experience has impacted thousands of “pilgrims” since its inception in 2002. Early that year, members of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers were inspired to bring Lourdes pilgrimages to those unable to visit Lourdes. Later that year, three pilgrims from Kansas City, Kan., met with the foundress of Lourdes Volunteers in Lourdes and Nevers, France. The three pilgrims agreed to be the first host team to bring the grace of Lourdes to their parish community. The then-pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Overland Park, Kan., was born on Feb. 11, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes, and was devoted to her. He agreed to allow the first-ever Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience. After two years of preparation, the first Virtual Lourdes experience was offered in the fall of 2004 at Holy Spirit Church.

Since then, the Virtual Pilgrimage to Lourdes has been experienced at churches, schools, prisons and military bases by 165,000+ in 44 states, 13 Native American Nations and 19 countries on five continents. 

The pilgrimage returned to the heartland Nov. 16. It was guided by Fran Salaun, a Volunteer Pilgrimage Guide from the Archdiocese of New York since 2011, who has traveled to Lourdes many times. She brought the Lourdes experience to the Cathedral,  presenting the grotto, the statues and stones, the basilica and the waters of the spring virtually, through photographs projected on a screen, the story of Bernadette Soubirous and the apparitions of Our Lady, anecdotes about personal experiences connected with Lourdes, and praying with the congregation.

The sound of the Ave Maria greeted those entering the Cathedral. Following an introduction by Father Paul Turner, pastor of the Cathedral, Salaun rose and soon transported those present to Lourdes, France in February 1858.

Bernadette Soubirous, the 14-year-old daughter of a miller and his wife, was often sickly, suffering recurrent bouts of asthma caused by cholera contracted when she was a child, which also kept her from attending school regularly. On the morning of Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette, her younger sister and a friend walked to the grotto of Massabielle on the banks of the Gave de Pau stream. The girls were in search of driftwood to both build a fire and to sell to buy bread.

Mindful of a promise made to her mother to keep her socks dry, Bernadette sat down to remove her socks before crossing the little river. It was very still. Suddenly hearing a great wind gust, she looked up toward the grotto. In the niche above the grotto, she saw a beautiful vision. Bernadette later said, “I saw a lady dressed in white, she wore a white dress, an equally white veil, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot.” The lady and the girl prayed the rosary together silently and the lady vanished. She was to reappear to the girl a few days later in the Grotto.

In total, the vision appeared to Bernadette 18 times between Feb. 1 and July 16, 1858.

In an early visitation, the lady told Bernadette she would make her happy, not in this life, but in the next.

A well-known photograph of St. Bernadette Soubirous, 14 years old, around the time of the 18 apparitions of the Immaculate Conception, Mary the Mother of Jesus. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

As Salaun spoke, several people wept. Others prayed in silence. Still others listened, engrossed. 

During her visits to the grotto, the lady prayed with Bernadette; was occasionally silent the whole time; another time, she told Bernadette a secret which she never revealed; requested the girl pray for sinners; kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners; dig into the mud with her hands to find some muddy water and, after three tries, finally succeed in drinking it, as a penance for sinners.

Word of the visions soon spread; some thought Bernadette was lying and wanted proof.

Then on March 2, the lady, whose name Bernadette did not yet know, said, “Go tell the priests that the people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel.”

Two days later, she told the girl, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius IX in his 1854 papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. The news of the doctrine would have been widespread in Paris and other major cities but was most likely unknown in the Pyrenees mountain areas like Lourdes. 

The final apparition occurred on July 16, 1858. Bernadette, who had been suspected of lying or simple-mindedness, stuck to her story and was finally vindicated in 1862. The diocesan bishop declared the faithful “justified in believing the reality of the apparition.” Pope Leo XIII authorized a special office and Mass in commemoration of the apparitions and in 1907, Pope Pius X expanded the feast to the entire church.

Bernadette never sought the limelight. She retreated to the Covent of St. Gildard, in Nevers, and in 1866 became a postulant of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Given the religious name Sr. Marie-Bernard, she served as an infirmary assistant, and later as a sacristan, embroidering altar cloths and vestments. The asthma she had long suffered eventually caused her to contract tuberculosis of the lungs and bones. She was bedridden for the final months of her life, dying on April 16, 1879 at the age of 35.

She was canonized a saint in 1933. Her incorrupt body lies in a glass mausoleum  in the convent chapel at St. Gildard.

During the past 150 years, more than 5 million people a year, whether Catholic or non-Catholic Christian, have visited the shrine at Lourdes, now a major pilgrimage site. There they pray, process to the shrine or the Basilica for Mass, and the sick are welcomed to the baths where 69 credible healings have occurred.

While recounting Bernadette’s story, Salaun often stopped to interject an anecdote about a healing, a comment someone had made, or to add layers of reality to the virtual experience. The layers of reality were the prayers – the Sign of the Cross, made thoughtfully as Bernadette instructed, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the Rosary; stones from the Grotto brought to be touched by the congregation, water from the grotto’s spring; a second class relic of St. Bernadette; and Exposition and Benediction at the end. During the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, one decade of the rosary was prayed while the participants held lighted candles in their hands. Many also remained for to go to confession and attend Mass.

In 2013, Pope Francis granted by apostolic decree a Plenary Indulgence to the faithful who make a pilgrimage to Lourdes or experience it in a virtual pilgrimage with North American Lourdes Volunteers, by fulfilling the usual norms and conditions (make a sacramental confession with a Catholic priest, receive the Holy Eucharist, pray for the intentions of the pope — the  Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be — and have a heart and mind free from all  attachment to sin between July 16, 2013 and July 15, 2020, all on the same day or at the same time as the act.) If the conditions are incomplete, the indulgence will be only partial. The indulgence may be offered for another soul or for oneself.

The virtual pilgrimage experience was powerful and moving. Several attendees commented that the grotto stone they touched felt warm. When leaving the Cathedral, I thought of Salaun’s words about the message of Lourdes. “Our Lady has something to say to us,” she said. Her message to you might not be the same as her message to me. Walking to my  car, I felt enveloped in a motherly hug. Ave Maria!

For more information on the North American Volunteers Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience, visit www.LourdesVolunteers.org.


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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph