By PRISCILLA GREEAR,Staff Writer | Published January 26, 2006
Pete Marsala journeyed as a volunteer last year to the Catholic pilgrimage site in the Pyrenees of Lourdes, France, where he met an Italian man who had been cured of bone cancer after visiting there in 1963.
That pilgrim was the 63rd healing out of 67 at Lourdes to have been certified miraculous by the church, and he returns to the spiritual wellspring every year as a volunteer in gratitude for the healing.
But the most amazing aspect of the trip for Marsala, a retired 25-year New York police officer, was experiencing God’s love profoundly within and seeing the great faith of thousands of other pilgrims and caregivers who had traveled there from around the world, including those near death.
Marsala, a member of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, was inspired to go there after seeing Marleen Watkins, director of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, speaking on Eternal World Television Network about this Catholic apostolate that arranges for Americans accompanied by a priest to travel on weeklong pilgrimages to Lourdes. There they serve as volunteers assisting sick people who come seeking spiritual and physical healing. The three-year-old nonprofit , now a public association of the Christian faithful affiliated with the Arch-Confraternity of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality in Lourdes, also takes sick pilgrims there, helping them to travel and participate in the site’s spiritual devotions. A trip with Atlanta pilgrims is scheduled for Sept. 15 to 25 and has spaces available.
A father of three as well as a grandfather, Marsala thought volunteering at Lourdes would be a good way to give back to God in gratitude for his many blessings so he signed on with an Atlanta group last fall, along with Shrine parishioner João Cleaver.
“It was just unbelievable,” Marsala said. “People in this country are not exposed to that kind of goodness and devotion. The place is staffed almost completely by volunteers. It’s just a remarkable place … a very spiritual, prayerful environment.”
Lourdes is a town of about 15,000 people with an ancient castle in its center. Moreover, it is the site of 18 Marian apparitions in 1858 to a sickly, poor girl named Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Massabielle, past which ripples the Gave River. Bernadette’s family had been reduced to extreme poverty after her father had a work accident; she suffered from cholera and tuberculosis and was unable to read or write. But as she reported to the church, Mary appeared to her in 1858, speaking about the necessity of prayer and penance for the conversion of people and asking for a chapel to be built there and for a procession to be held. On Feb. 25, 1858, Bernadette reported that Mary asked her to go drink and wash at the spring. But as she didn’t see any water nearby, Mary directed her to dig under a rock where she found a small spring of muddy water. The next month Catherine Latapie plunged her dislocated arm into the spring water and regained movement. By the 14th visit Bernadette’s encounter with Mary drew about 3,000 people.
Mary’s request that a chapel be built at the grotto by the spring was fulfilled in 1862. In 1866 Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity of Nevers but died by the age of 35. Her body lies at the Convent of St. Gildard at Nevers.
Devotion under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes was authorized and a Feb. 11 feast commemorating the apparitions instituted by Pope Leo XII. Now some 6 million pilgrims travel to Massabielle yearly, including many who seek spiritual and physical healing and to bathe in the spring waters from the grotto found there, which symbolizes the “living water Jesus gives” (Jn 4:14).
The majority of workers are volunteers who speak the official languages of Italian, English, French, German and Spanish, and there is a great need for English speakers as more and more who speak English as a second language now come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Pope John Paul II journeyed there in August 2004, in the last year of his life, celebrated Mass at the Marian grotto and said that he, too, was a sick pilgrim and asked for all present to be lifted into the arms of the Blessed Mother. He said that as Mary asked St. Bernadette to recite the rosary, “this grotto has thus become a unique school of prayer where Mary teaches everyone to gaze with burning love upon the face of Christ.”
The North American Volunteers organization has on its board a priest, a 20-year hospitality volunteer, three physicians and six lay persons. It facilitates the admission and training processes of volunteers as well as the travel and sanctuary accommodations, with the tax deductible cost of the Atlanta trip at $1,395, including airfare, ground transportation, modest rooms with shared bathrooms on each floor, and all meals. The organization is mostly run by volunteers and relies on donations.
Volunteers have a day of training at Lourdes and another of formation and serve an average of six to eight hours a day. The 63-year-old Marsala assisted with transporting sick pilgrims and with helping men bathe in the holy waters, while women assist with female bathers and nurses there, as there is a hospital and permanent medical staff.
Marsala didn’t find it depressing to see so many sick people.
“It’s a very spiritual, prayerful environment,” he said. “We’re so exposed in the media to all the negative things that happen in the world and it’s one of the beautiful things that happens in the world.”
He said there is also sufficient time for personal activities and reflection during designated down time and on a free day. There are Masses and a candlelight procession offered daily and an international Mass at the underground basilica on Sundays for some 25,000 pilgrims. Many come from Italy and across Europe, but more and more people now arrive from Africa and Asia. However the NAV reports that only 10 percent of the 8,000 volunteers come from Great Britain while half of the pilgrims speak English.
Watkins founded the organization in 2000 after a friend won a free plane ticket and they went to Europe, stopping at Lourdes.
“I had a wonderful experience in the baths and a very healing experience and a great deepening of my faith,” Watkins said.
The next year a couple of sick friends asked her to accompany them. They found themselves waiting four days to get into the bathing pools due to unusually high crowds. A bath matron helped Watkins finally bypass the line to volunteer and also get her friends in. She saw the need for more English speakers and promised the Mother of God to bring back 10 good Catholic American women the next year. She followed through, and the next year the president of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality asked her to “bring more Americans.” Before their participation, only some 30 American volunteers participated annually.
Watkins discovered the meaning of hospitality by serving the universal church at Lourdes. But, in a phone interview from their office in Syracuse, she recalled the sense of inadequacy she initially felt to help, being a housewife with limited financial resources. She was comforted by the life of Bernadette, who was a poor, weak girl but who was called to holiness and greatness by Mary. The Lourdes hospitality organization assured her of this also.
“They said, ‘That’s not the story of Bernadette. You go get the Americans,’” Watkins recalled.
So in 2003 and 2004 the organization led 200 pilgrims there, and last year took about 300. In 2005 the president of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality asked them to become a formal hospitality and confraternity of the Catholic Church. Watkins believes the ministry’s growth reflects God’s blessings upon it. As a confraternity of the church the organization is now renovating a house purchased for volunteers, who currently stay in a hostel. She added that for the friends seeking healing with whom she waited four days at the bathhouses, it “had a profound impact on their lives.”
Watkins said that in addition to the 67 healings at Lourdes certified miraculous by the Catholic Church there are approximately 7,000 more in which official claims have been completed for their certification. About half have been declared scientifically inexplicable, she said.
“It’s the same Christ who performed all the miracles in the Gospels and who is performing them now,” Watkins continued.
Many volunteers find it’s a blessed way to serve the universal church.
“It’s an opportunity to really live our virtues and serve Christ like Mary would … Our Lady came to remind us of something, to call us to penance and conversion of heart. The gift is that many find healing and peace, some physical and some spiritual,” she said. “It’s a life-changing experience. … Some people experience resurrection, many others find healing themselves even though they didn’t go seeking healing. Lots return to the sacraments or return to the church and the faith. Some people say I’m not going to find a cure but say I’m going for grace and healing before I die, and they find it.”
She encouraged infirm persons to consider a pilgrimage.
“People who are sick and cannot travel to Lourdes on their own or who are afraid because they’re ill can come with us. We have doctors and nurses” to accompany them.
French Canadian Father Marcel-Emard Duguay has worked at Lourdes for three years as a chaplain and was in the United States to speak on the NAV ministry.
During the ministry’s pilgrimage season from April through October there are roughly 35,000 pilgrims and 7,000 volunteers on an average day. He believes that Lourdes is truly a blessing for France—a country where relatively few practice their faith—and the world, and added that France’s Taizé ecumenical and international Christian community is also a gift. He stressed that infirm pilgrims are always treated very respectfully and given continual care as needed and that many, whether arriving with physical, psychological or spiritual struggles, experience a sense of peace deeper than any pain. One man came seeking relief from muscle aches and before leaving said that he found spiritual healing that he didn’t know he needed. He recalled one Hindu man who comes yearly to bathe in the waters, and a conversation he had with a young Arab man about faith. “We treat them as people, not as Muslims.”
Volunteers “welcome pilgrims, especially the poor or handicapped and sick. They go as servants according to the Gospel itself. (As Jesus said) I don’t come to be served, but to serve. Whatever they do to the least of mine, they do to me.”
In addition to the Lourdes hospital there are two welcome homes in Lourdes for the sick to stay where volunteers scrub floors, wash dishes and perform other domestic chores and volunteering medical professionals serve. The friendly priest said he was asked by his order, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, to come to Lourdes, and that he’s found the environment to be very conducive to spiritual growth and a gift from God to him. He, too, had visited Lourdes 40 years ago as a tourist and has found that many like him once passed through briefly and were later called to return as pilgrims.
“For a priest it’s not always easy to sit down and be quiet and pray, but in Lourdes everything is prayer and people pray. Lourdes takes you to another world. Mary said to Bernadette, ‘I don’t promise you to be happy in this world but in the other world,’ but for me Lourdes is the other world. … People from all over the world come to find peace and serenity and to have this experience of another world. I find it there and in the presence of all the pilgrims.”
He emphasized that while it’s a Marian shrine, it above all leads people to Christ.
“The heart of Lourdes is Jesus. Mary said, ‘I wanted a church to be built here and to have a procession—not for me but for Him.’ For Jesus’ first miracle (at the wedding feast in Cana) Mary went to Jesus because they had no wine. Mary went to the kitchen and said, ‘Go to Him and do what He tells you.’ That’s what she said in Lourdes, ‘Go to Him.’”
Marsala found he developed a deeper appreciation for Mary’s role in salvation.
“Because of her supplication to God’s will she became a vehicle of our salvation. She had the free will to do or not do it. She became the first tabernacle of the Lord.”
The Shrine pilgrim will again participate in the September pilgrimage and invites others to join him. Since his trip he’s found that he has more energy.
“I think everybody should go at least once,” Marsala said. “I worked harder than I’d worked in years and felt invigorated by it. … I found a physical strength that I didn’t have before. I found a spirituality that was increased tremendously by being there. It was an amazing, amazing thing for me.”
For information on Lourdes, visit www.lourdes-france.org. For information on volunteering, visit www.lourdesvolunteers.org or call Pete Marsala at (404) 433-7637.