Tuesday 19 February 2013

Lourdes by candlelight

Driving back to Luz through Lourdes with my beaux-parents earlier this week, we somehow took a wrong turn down by the gave and ended up slap-bang in the middle of a religious procession.

From March to October each year, Lourdes transforms into a place of mass Catholic pilgrimage from Europe and other parts of the world. Around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, where on 11 February 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote Grotte de Massabielle, religious processions in Lourdes are a common occurrence. Nonetheless, in supposedly secular 21st-century France, such blatant displays of religious fervour in the streets always seem to catch me unaware.

Processions in Lourdes are often strange events, imbued with religious symbolism which, having grown up in a predominantly Anglican culture, often pass over my head. The participants processed in silence, red capes thrown over their shoulders. Some carred banners, others large crosses or icons. Driving carefully through the crowd, I asked myself what it all means.

Whenever we are in Lourdes, we find ourselves in a non-Catholic, non-pilgrim minority. We are always onlookers. For us, there is no dress code, no specified behaviour to follow or outward expressions of religious fervour. The meaning of this particular procession escapes us entirely. The pilgrimage “season” has not yet commenced. Are they processing because it is almost the start of Lent? Because today is the Feast day of Saint Bernadette or because the Pope has just announced his departure? Who knows.

Watching on, it’s easy to have the impression that it’s all just folklore. Then I notice another attraction dedicated to the worship of a quite different gods: the shops and restaurants have all awoken from their winter slumber and doing a brisk trade in plastic jerry cans of holy water and alabaster Saints…

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