Stephen Talbutt has just completed his first year of studies at Oscott Seminary Birmingham and has been on summer placement at St. Maria Goretti Preston.
As it was my first trip to Lourdes, the grotto and surrounding areas overloaded my senses, the area surrounding the grotto is a mishmash of hotels, souvenir shops, bars, cafés and restaurants.
On arrival the first thing I wanted to do was to visit the grotto, the place where on Thursday, February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, who was sent with her younger sister and a friend to gather firewood by the river, encountered our Blessed Mother Mary.
So after a bite to eat in the hotel, a friend and I set off in the dark heat of the night on the short walk from the hotel to the grotto. The similarity between Blackpool sea front and the area directly in front of the grotto domain was quite uncanny; the neon signed flashing shop frontages cram packed so close together on the narrow streets, with the hundreds of pilgrims and cars, vans and coaches negotiating for space. All the shops seemed to be selling rosaries, candles, water bottles and Lourdes souvenir fridge magnets and back scratchers (the tackiest item I spotted was a two foot tall glow in the dark statue of Our Lady, which I am ashamed to admit I was almost tempted to buy for novelties sake).
The shops stop outside the domain, on entering and going down the hill you come to the impressive Rosary Basilica, which is built into the side of the hill. On walking past and around the basilica you arrive at the grotto itself which is where St Bernadette had the apparitions, this area is the quietest in the domain, although maybe peaceful would be a better word as it’s hard to maintain quietness when thousands of pilgrims are walking up and around the grotto, and there are a plethora of services being held there throughout the day. (I would suggest the most meditative place to visit for quiet would be the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, although even here there is a constant stream of pilgrims entering and leaving the chapel through the ‘swooshing’ chapel doors.)
The grotto does for the most part possess an air of tranquility, after spending some time leaning against the wall between the river and grotto, and saying a few prayers to Our lady and St Bernadette, soaking up the prayerful atmosphere, we went back to the hotel for a night’s sleep.
On the coach from the airport to the hotel, the tour company representative warned us about the number of beggars in the town, and told us not to give them any money. The next day in the daylight on the walk down to the grotto the beggars are painfully apparent. On every street corner, sitting on the side of the road, some with children, some amputees and some disabled, they are impossible to miss. When walking past someone with their hand out asking for money for food, what should we do? Ignoring them and just walking by was difficult to start with but got easier the more I did it.
It scared me how easy it was becoming and it did not feel right. So what should I do? What would Jesus do? I discussed this with another pilgrim who suggested that in acknowledging them we are at least giving them their human dignity. This sounded to me like a good approach, after all we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and I am sure Jesus would not just walk on by. With this new frame of mind I set out from the hotel to the grotto, approximately half way there was a man sitting on the road with a young boy, he indicated that he would like money, I smiled at him and said that I hadn’t any on me, then carried on walking, The next day he was still there at the same spot, but this time as I passed he smiled in recognition and I smiled back, he again asked for money for food and I again indicated that I didn’t have any, but now after looking him in the eye there was a bond of recognition and I wanted to do something for him, so on the way back from the grotto I popped into the supermarket and bought some fruit for him and the boy. He was as usual sitting in the same spot so I squatted down next to him and handed over the bag of fruit which he took graciously and thanked me. He then indicated to me his trousers and shoes both of which were the worse for wear, the cynical part of me screamed out “He is trying it on now, trying to get as much out of this gullible tourist as possible!”, so I stood shrugging my shoulders and waving my hands, and I think he understood and smiled back. That evening around the supper table I told my companions about the encounter, and one of them very kindly said that he had some spare sandals that the man could have, so after supper he got them for me and I left them in my room.
The next day the man and boy were nowhere to be seen, so that evening I left the sandals in the hotel room. The following morning we had a pilgrimage Mass at one of the chapels in the domain, I served at the Holy Mass and when I got back to the hotel room I realised I had left my cincture (cord that you wrap around your waist over the alb) back in the chapel. With a sigh I set out back into the heat to retrieve the cord, I decided to take a short-cut through the back streets avoiding the main thoroughfare, as I turned a corner into an empty street there he was! Sitting with the boy at the side of the road. When he saw me he beamed and waved I crossed over and shook his hand. I indicated that I had some shoes for him and tried in haltingly bad French to say that I would be back in twenty minutes, this didn't work so I said ‘hotel?” and pointed. He seemed to understand and we stood to go back to the hotel. We chatted (as much as possible, considering the language difference) on the walk back, he indicated that he was Romani and had been in France for the last two years. He stopped about a hundred yards from the hotel indicating that he couldn't get any closer, so I went back to the room to pick up the sandals and a pair of trousers that I had spare.
The difference between the plush hotel and life on the street struck me as poles apart, leaving me with a great sense of gratitude, and an awareness that when we look beyond stereotypes we see all too clearly that we all possess that same human dignity. We are all made in the image and likeness of God, we are all brothers and sisters. My Romani friend now accepted the sandals and trousers with gratitude, the young boy at his side jumped up saying in French what I assume was ‘What about me? What about me?’ but the man told him not harshly to come and sit down. We warmly shook hands with each other before I headed back to the chapel.
It struck me that being a Christian is to follow the example of Jesus Christ in the world, and to see Him in all those around us, this is not always easy and puts us in situations that we would rather not be in, and makes us see things we would rather not acknowledge, but in these situations we begin to see more truly who we really are, and our failings and shortcomings. It leaves us with a sense of hope and of peace and love, with the sure knowledge that if we try and follow in our Masters footsteps he will lead us ever closer to Him
I only saw the man one more time before leaving, I was in one of the pilgrimage processions and he was sitting in his usual place by the side of the road, he looked over and both he and the boy waved. It seemed that he was no longer the beggar by the side of the road, and I was no longer the pilgrim tourist waving back, we were just two men acknowledging each other with genuine warmth.
The thing I will take away from Lourdes is my encounter with this poor man and his son, in the place where a poor girl encountered the Mother of God.