Thirty-nine join bishop on visits to Europe’s big Marian shrines
By Annette O’Brien
Special to The Catholic Weekly
SAGINAW — Thirty-nine people joined Bishop Joseph R. Cistone and Frs. Richard Jozwiak and Don Eppenbrock Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 29-Oct. 9, on a pilgrimage to Marian Shrines in France, Spain and Portugal.
While the 10-day trip included a number of stops and several events, the visits to Lourdes in France, Avila in Spain and Fatima in Portugal were the most significant.
At Lourdes, the Saginaw pilgrims stayed in a hotel just five minutes away from the grotto where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette. The Diocese of Saginaw pilgrims joined with a group from Wisconsin to celebrate an early morning Mass at the grotto. It began just before daybreak and the rising sun offered the visitors their first opportunity to observe the beauty and simplicity of the apparition site. After Mass, they got to see the original spring that came into being because of Bernadette’s instructions from Our Lady to scratch in the ground and then to wash her face in the water that came up. Water still bubbles up from the ground at this site.
Even though almost all of the Saginaw pilgrims wished to partake in the healing waters of the Lourdes’ baths, only a small number were able to do so since about three or four times more people wished to partake in the baths than the facilities and time allowed. Three women and five men from the Saginaw group experienced the baths. All described the experience as being very spiritual and felt it was definitely a high point of their trip. About half of these people came to the waters with medical issues for which they requested healing.
Those who were not able to take part in the baths went to gather Lourdes water to bring home and to wash their faces in the water as Bernadette did. They also had the opportunity to observe the many people who came with severe medical conditions such as being wheelchair-bound. Several people were on stretchers and hospital beds and still others walked with the aid of crutches or had other physical challenges. Many of these people were taken to the baths. Waiting outside the bath area offered an opportunity to see the reaction of the people. Some left with smiles of joy and relief while others emerged sobbing but peaceful. An aura of holiness was present in the corner of the shrine where the baths were housed.
In the evening, the Saginaw group also joined thousands of other pilgrims in the candlelight procession. The procession ended with a rosary. The prayers were offered in a variety of languages so that all were able to hear at least a portion of a decade in their own language.
The Saginaw group also visited the medieval walled city of Avila, built in the 12th century and the birthplace of St. Teresa of Avila. This city is known as one of the best preserved in the world. It consists of cobblestone roads and a combination of shops and quaint houses that are still used to this day.
The group left the city, however, to visit to the Carmelite Convent, where St. Teresa lived for more than 30 years, wrote and had many of her mystical experiences. The visit included Mass, a tour of the convent and an opportunity to view the parlor in which St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross prayed together and planned the work of establishing new convents that was to be a major part of the work of her later years. St. Teresa traveled about 6,000 miles in her work to form and reform religious orders. It is said that in the parlor of the Carmelite Convent, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were so deeply in prayer and in union with the Lord that they often levitated while in their mystical state.
In order to fully appreciate the miracle of Fatima, the Saginaw group visited many areas in and around Fatima to experience where each of the children lived, to see the sites where first the Angel of Peace appeared to the children and to visit the Chapel of Apparitions where Our Lady of Fatima visited them. A high point of the visit was the opportunity to walk along the Via Sacra (The Sacred Way). Many travel this route to pray the Stations of the Cross but the Saginaw group used this serene early morning walk to pray the rosary together, with each decade being led by a different pilgrim. It also offered them then opportunity to visit the site of Our Lady’s fourth apparition to the children in Vilanhos, where a monument has been erected.
When visiting the hamlet of Aljustrel and the homes where Lucia and Francesco and Jacinta lived, there was also an opportunity to meet and have pictures taken with Sr. Lucia’s niece. This woman is now 93 years old and enjoys interacting with the many pilgrims who come to visit the homes.
The return to Fatima offered opportunities: to visit the Chapel of Apparitions, which was built on the exact spot where Our Lady appeared to the children; to see a portion of the Berlin Wall that was offered to the shrine by a Portuguese emigrant to Germany as a grateful memorial of God’s intervention for the fall of Communism as promised at Fatima; to attend a Marian candlelight procession each evening after dark, very similar to the processions of Lourdes; and to gather water from the spigots to take home to loved ones. (It is said that the waters of Lourdes are designed to offer physical healing while the waters of Fatima are for healings of the mind and heart.)
The stay in Fatima culminated with Mass at the basilica and a farewell dinner.
On the long return trip to the United States, the pilgrims thanked God for the beautiful weather of each day, the expert tour guide assigned to them and the daily opportunity to pray the rosary and celebrate the Eucharist. They also thanked the bishop and the two priests who traveled with them.
Many said they came home with renewed love and understanding of Our Lady and the miracle of her many apparitions to Bernadette and the three children of Fatima: Lucia, Francesco, and Jacinta. Several also cited the bishop’s words from his homily on Friday, Oct. 7, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary: “Mary probably smiled when she appeared to Bernadette and to the three children because she knew what it was to be approached by a messenger of God. We have to remember, it’s not about Bernadette or Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta; it’s not even about Mary. It’s all about God and about bringing people to a deeper love and understanding of our Lord.”
Annette O’Brien is director of stewardship and planned giving for the Diocese of Saginaw.