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Pilgrimages: A Personal Gift from God

September 25, 2003
Fr. Richard Mullins
Catholic Herald

It was a cool October morning, 15 years ago, in the mountain village of Lourdes. Jean-Pierre Bely, a paralytic, was celebrating the last day of his October Rosary Pilgrimage to the famous site where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. Miracles seemed so old fashioned in 1987, yet there was the constant flow of pilgrims, some walking, some in wheelchairs and some on stretchers like Jean-Pierre, each one making a new petition, using an ancient ritual of prayer, a pilgrimage.

Multiple Sclerosis had ravaged his body since 1984, yet peace filled soul on that providential journey of faith. To those who knew him, it must have seemed ironic that the pilgrimage was in honor of the rosary, and instrument he could not even hold, whose beads were unusable for his inanimate fingers; he followed along with empty hands but with a heart full of prayer as he meditated on the mysteries of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.

On the last day of his pilgrimage, as he was anointed with the Sacrament of the Sick, he experienced a "sensation of coldness" succeeded by a "gentle warmth" over his whole body. He felt transformed and knew that a cure had taken place, but did not say anything at first, for the sake of the other sick pilgrims; rather, he waited until he was united with his wife and children before sharing the miraculous news of his recovery. He eventually presented his case to the Lourdes Medical Office for consideration, as he states, "I couldn’t keep this all to myself." He later added that the cure was accompanied by a "feeling of total pardon and of love" which he received in the Sacrament of Confession.

While there are an inestimable number of unofficial healings, spiritual, psychological and physical, which have taken place in Lourdes since1858, Bely became the 66th authentically recognized and publicly proclaimed miraculous healing at the Grotto of Lourdes. His case was voted on by the International Medical Committee of Lourdes and the result were submitted to the Bishop of Angouleme, France, where Jean-Pierre resides, and on Feb. 10, 1999, the bishop declared, "In the name of the Church, I recognize and acknowledge the in public the authenticity of the cure… a personal gift of God for this man and an effective sign of Christ the Savior which was accomplished through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The pilgrimage in which Jean-Pierre Bely participated was a recent example of an ancient tradition. Over a thousand before Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in the Grotto of Lourdes, Catholics seeking healing, an answered prayer, penance or simply the glorification of God have set out to change their lives and especially their souls with a pilgrimage. In 813, pilgrims began arriving in Compostela, Spain to venerate the relics of the Apostle, James the Greater, the brother of John. By the year 1000, there were 500,000 people coming from all over Europe. Eventually, by 1350, that number had doubled to over a million supplicant souls, each with a prayer of praise, petition or thanksgiving, making the pilgrim way to Compostela, the most famous and widely traveled road in the world.

Other pilgrimage sites became popular, along with Compostela in the middle ages. Rome, the home of Catholicism was known for the many indulgenced churches and events which offered tremendous graces for those who able to make the journey. The Holy Land was considered the ultimate destination as it was the site of the events in the life of Our Lord. Because of the ongoing wars between the Christians and the Muslims, it was not a safe venue for most pilgrims and was principally a destination for priests and crusader knights. Whether a pilgrim was traveling to a shrine which was very near or one which was far away, a pilgrimage entailed many dangers. There were issues of health and problems with crime, there were the hardships of those who had to walk and the privations of those with little financial means. Pilgrims believed then as they do now that the inconveniences involved, such as giving up precious time or enduring personal hardships are a source of many graces.

Each pilgrimage of faith, whether entered into with an expectation of an answered prayer or simply as a sign of devotion is source of grace and opportunity to grow closer to Christ. While some pilgrimage fruits are famous, such as the case of Jean Pierre Bely and the 65 other official cures of Lourdes, the effects of many journeys of faith are known only to the pilgrim who undertakes them. Often, pilgrimage shrines will have "ex voto" offerings hanging near a sacred image. This custom, popular in Europe and Latin America, involves leaving a token, usually a silver or gold charm at a pilgrimage site as a thanksgiving testimony recognizing an answered prayer. The world-famous shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jasna Gora, Poland contains rooms full of symbolic offerings for favors received and even a museum filled with the shrine’s most famous bequests. Offerings made to Our Lady by visitors are as diverse home made objects from concentration camp survivors to precious jewels offered by the Catholic kings and queens of Europe. Among the most famous displays of gratitude for favors granted to pilgrims, are the awards, including the Nobel Prize, bestowed upon former Polish President Lech Walensa and the blood-stained white sash worn by Pope John Paul II on the day he was shot. At Jasna Gora the tangible gold and silver offerings for favors granted are but a mere representation of the millions of whispered expressions of gratitude which are just as precious to the Lord and his Blessed Mother.

Pilgrimage sites are much more accessible now than ever before; those who live in the Diocese of Arlington are fortunate to have the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception so near. On Oct. 18, 2003, the Diocese of Arlington will go on pilgrimage to the Basilica, so that we, like millions of pilgrims before us, may participate in this ancient ritual of prayer. Whether we travel by subway, bus or car, the goal of the pilgrim remains the same; to Grow in holiness and to manifest a love of God through the places He has given us to honor Him and His Blessed Mother. Whatever prayers our Diocesan pilgrims carries with them and however far our pilgrims travel to the Basilica, surely the Lord will see their sacrifices and reward them with graces, so that, in the words of the Bishop of Angouleme, France, our diocesan pilgrimage of faith may yield for each pilgrim, a "personal gift from God."

Copyright © 2003, Arlington Catholic Herald