LOURDES, France — Pope Benedict XVI is known to the world as a bookish theologian and an academic. When he arrived at the French sanctuary of Lourdes Saturday afternoon, people discovered he has a “Marian” side, too.
The pope first stopped at the parish church where St. Bernadette Soubirous was baptized, and then visited the small house — a former prison not much bigger than a cell — where the young girl and her family lived in the mid-19th century. There, he kissed her rosary and said a prayer.
Next the pope went to the grotto at the base of a rocky cliff, where Bernadette experienced 18 apparitions of Mary 150 years ago. Like millions of pilgrims each year, he paused to take a drink of water from the spring she discovered there, said to have miraculous powers.
I was among the group of reporters at the grotto, watching the proceedings through the umbrellas of bishops who stood near the pontiff in a steady rain.
Earlier in the day, we had flown down with the pope on his plane from Paris, where he spent about 30 hours in events with politicians, academics, pastoral workers and a massive crowd of faithful.
In Lourdes, the focus was clearly on Mary.
The night of his arrival at the sanctuary, the pope watched a torchlight evening procession in Rosary Square. Here, addressing thousands of pilgrims, he paid tribute to simple devotion.
At Lourdes, he said, Mary stirred hope and love “by giving pride of place to the sick, the poor and the little ones.”
“In this shrine at Lourdes … we are invited to discover the simplicity of our vocation: it is enough to love,” he said.
The traditional nighttime procession stems from St. Bernadette’s habit of lighting a candle when Mary would appear to her. Today, the pope said, the light from pilgrims’ torches represents a powerful symbol against the darkness of sin.
The procession expresses the mystery of prayer in a form that everyone can grasp, like a luminous path in the dark, he said. It should also remind Christians of those who suffer, he said.
“We think of innocent victims who suffer from violence, war, terrorism and famine; those who bear the consequences of injustices, scourges and disasters, hatred and oppression; of attacks on their human dignity and fundamental rights; on their freedom to act and think,” he said.
The pope remembered those experiencing family problems, illness, unemployment or loneliness, as well as difficulties related to immigration. Those who have suffered or died for Christ must not be forgotten, either, he said.
He described Lourdes pilgrimages as leading to a spiritual place “between heaven and earth.” Pilgrims may come secretly hoping to receive some miracle, he said, but more often leave with a different kind of spiritual experience and a changed outlook.
“A small flame called hope, compassion, tenderness now dwells within them. A quiet encounter with Bernadette and the Virgin Mary can change a person’s life,” he said.
On the plane carrying him to France, the pope told journalists that his April 16 birthday fell on the feast of St. Bernadette, and for that reason he felt very close to her.
He said that at Lourdes, people encounter Mary and find that “the mother’s love” is what provides true healing for all sickness and suffering.
“I think this is a very important sign for our era,” he said.