“Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou.” I am the Immaculate Conception.
In 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke these hallowed words to Bernadette Soubirous, a teenager of 14 years old. Uneducated and burdened with poverty, the Mother of Jesus nevertheless chose her as a witness to 18 apparitions at Lourdes, France.
At Mary’s request, Bernadette obediently followed her instructions to dig until a spring flowed from the ground and to erect a sanctuary for worship, which later became known as “The Grotto.”
During that same year, the first miracle at Lourdes reported the unexplainable cure of a woman’s paralyzed right arm after immediate submergence into the water. Ever since, thousands continue to flock to this holy ground on religious pilgrimage in hopes of bathing in the healing Grotto unearthed by Bernadette 158 years ago.
Little did I know, I would soon embark on an immense journey of my Catholic faith and become one of many from around the globe to worship in Lourdes. Called to serve alongside five other high school students during summer 2016, I had the privilege of volunteering with the Order of Malta, an international organization dedicated to carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ.
Though the Blessed Virgin welcomes all to share in the divinity of Lourdes, the recorded 69 miraculous cures attributed to the healing waters of the Grotto attract the sick and terminally ill members of the Catholic community.
As an internationally renowned religious destination, trains filled with people of all backgrounds, languages, and aliments pull into Lourdes at all hours of the day. Among the bustle of the train station, my fellow youth pilgrims and I weaved intricately through the crowds pushing wheelchair after wheelchair from the platform to the proper bus, helping to unload each of the faithful to begin their journey at Lourdes.
Present in service to these malades, a French term meaning ill, our group of six teenage volunteers worked in the sacred baths to give each pilgrim an opportunity to be fully submerged in the graces of Mary and Saint Bernadette. Whether by walker, wheelchair, or stretcher, it was a truly humbling and indescribable experience to witness the unwavering faith of the suffering in a state of such precious vulnerability.
Beyond the incredible opportunity to share in the miraculous moments with the malades, the time I spent more in France truly redefined my faith in opening my eyes to the universality of the Catholic church.
Surrounded by people of diverse origin, I experienced international Masses spoken in Italian, French, Latin, and many more tongues. I prayed the rosary in ten different languages.
However, never once did language create a barrier, neither in worship or service. Rather, it strengthened the unity among all those in Lourdes, common only in our shared belief in Jesus Christ.
Unlike any other experience imaginable, Lourdes united me with a global community of servants, similar in our individual quests to live as reminders of mercy and compassion.
The single memory I carry with me through the struggles of my own life is the face of mute woman as she mouthed the words “Thank you” while I bathed her. Such a simple act of gratitude remains the sum of my experience at Lourdes, a daily reminder to live a life of thanksgiving and faith in imitation of those who have not lost hope in the darkness of their diseases.
Arriving home, my return begged the question from many eager to hear about my journey to France: “Did you witness a miracle?” To this I reply a firm and unwavering “Yes.”
Now, did I see a limb regrow instantaneously or a cancer patient become suddenly symptom free? No. However, the opening of the eyes of faith and restoration of the ability to walk with renewed strength toward a future of unknowns are the miraculous moments in the Grotto.
“If you remember nothing from Lourdes, remember only this: Be kind to others.” These were the final words I heard as I boarded the plane to return to America; these are the words I vowed to live by for the rest of my life.