Note to self: When offering up one’s Lourdes bath in penance for sexual abusers while a cover-up crisis rocks the Church, be ready for a penitential experience.
My path to Lourdes began on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. I was leading my daughters’ Catholic girls’ club meeting, and we were talking about how that day was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. As the girls were playing in another room, one of the other moms whispered, “Did you hear what’s going on at St. Joe’s?”
I told my friend that I’d only heard a veiled mention of “a neighboring parish facing some troubling information” during the homily at daily Mass that morning but hadn’t given it another thought. That “troubling information” was the removal and arrest of Msgr. William Lynn, then-pastor of our now-parish. When our club meeting ended that day, I looked up the news: Msgr. Lynn stood accused of child endangerment from his time as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Secretary for Clergy.
The fact that the media released this story on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes struck me as no accident. That night, I told my husband, “It’s just like Mary asked Bernadette to dig and find a spring. Healing can’t start until the dirt gets cleared away.”
The significance of this timing drew me to read more about Our Lady of Lourdes. Of course, I’d been made to watch The Song of Bernadette during my days in Catholic grade school. More recently, I’d watched Bernadette: Princess of Lourdes with my own kids. Still, I knew I was no expert, and the fact that dirt was being moved on this feast of Our Mother made me wonder if Mary doesn’t just hurt with the hurting whenever her children are abused, but could she also be taking an active hand in securing earthly justice for victims? Further, if even the abusers remain her children, could God be using Mary to draw the worst of sinners back to His mercy by making them unable any longer to deny that they had in fact sinned and sinned mortally?
I have reason to hope that is the case. As a family abuse survivor myself, I often tell people quick to jump to negative conclusions regarding our Church and clergy, “I was safer at the rectory than I ever was in my home.”
The more I read about the apparition at Lourdes, the more I wanted to make my own pilgrimage to Massabielle someday. Having been abused in the bath as a child, I clung to the idea of a bath at Lourdes as a powerful place in which Mother Mary could right the wrongs of my past and free me from so much betrayal. Still, as the mother of three young children, I imagined that trip would have to wait until they were all grown.
Then our family went to the 2015 World Meeting of Families in far more local Philadelphia. When they announced that the 2018 meeting would be in Dublin, my husband and I snarked to each other, “We could go to Dublin.” A moment later, however, we looked at each other and said, “Wait—we could go to Dublin.” As our planning progressed, we realized that the biggest expense of that trip would be the airfare, so we might as well make the most of it.
Lourdes was added to the itinerary.
About six weeks before our departure date, the McCarrick scandal broke. The present pain of abuse victims, as well as the possible eternal pain of their abusers should they never repent, weighed heavily on my heart. Then as we packed, there were rumblings across social media of “something big coming out of Pennsylvania.” We left our home state for Europe, and I prayed that I would be able to receive a Lourdes bath, not just for myself, but for everyone hurt by the scandal of abuse, even the abusers. Especially the abusers.
I woke in Lourdes at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. This was our day at the baths. Nervous, excited, hopeful, I set my prayer intention in my heart: for the conversion of child abusers. I think I may have imagined that, since I was being so generous and merciful with my Lourdes bath intention, it would only be an experience of great consolation.
The wait in front of the baths was lovely: sitting on benches rather than standing, volunteers singing Marian songs in French, then prayer and priestly blessing before the baths actually opened. I speak enough French to follow the French volunteers’ instructions on how to get undressed and to go into the actual room with the bath in it when it was my turn. Shaking like mad, more from the intensity than the admittedly cold water, I made my prayer intention and followed the volunteers’ instructions to kneel.
I sat. They told me they were going to lower me into the water. Because I have knee problems, I tried to straighten my legs to make their job easier, when suddenly, the volunteer on my left barked a harsh, “Non!”
So I knelt again. Another harsh “Non!”
I tried leaning back. This time, the same harsh voice demanded, “Non! Lève-toi!” Get up!
Confused, I nevertheless obeyed. The volunteer sighed with annoyance.
Nobody moved to direct me in any path. Was I done? Was this my Lourdes bath? Do I try again? But I am so shaken by being snapped at by someone who was supposed to help me access healing, that finally, I said, “Je veux partir. Je veux partir.”
I want to leave. I want to leave. No one stopped me.
I went back out into the changing room, where volunteers and pilgrims went about their business. Shaking, crying, I found my clothes and began to dress, begging God, begging Mary, What should I do? What did all this mean?
I realized I could stay silent like I did when I was a child, or I could speak up. Before I left, in my halting French, I told one of the volunteers in the dressing area that the lady on the left was trop méchante. This new volunteer listened but did nothing else, other than telling me to stay and calm down before I went to find my family. This, alas, resolved nothing. At last she asked if I wanted to try the bath again, but the thought of facing that harsh volunteer only made me shake harder. I declined and went to find my family so my husband could take his turn.
As I walked back to the hotel, still weeping and trembling, I wondered what answer I got from this experience. Speak up, but expect nothing to get done and to feel worse for it? Expect, as Our Lady promised St. Bernadette, no comfort in this world but only in the next?
I told my husband what happened. He suggested I try again. I refused. He asked me at least to walk with him to the baths and give it some prayer on the way. Reluctantly I agreed, but by the time we arrived at the building that housed the baths, I told him to go on without me, but I would wait for him nearby. I also told him to offer his bath up for me. He agreed and went to the men’s line.
I had a couple of hours to wait, as by this time in the morning, on the eve of the Assumption, the lines had grown much longer. Most of that time I sat on a bench across the River Gave from the baths, stunned, watching people pass me by. I emerged enough mentally to look at my phone and use precious international data at a couple of bloggers’ Lourdes bath stories, searching for evidence that maybe I hadn’t understood what was going on, that I was ascribing malice where there was only goodwill… that, as my abuser often told me, I was making a big deal out of nothing.
I found no answers. I prayed Lauds. I tweeted a fractioned account of my bath experience. No one responded.
When my husband returned, his hand was cupped. Lourdes water is well-known for being a fast-drying thing. He’d managed to make that entire walk across the bridge carrying a handful of water from the baths. He dipped the fingers of his other hand in it and traced a cross on my forehead.
“There,” he said. “I offered my bath for you. Now you can tell people you went twice.”
We spent the rest of this, our only full day at Lourdes, doing all the Lourdes stuff we could: confession, Vigil Mass in the basilica, Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic Procession. I don’t know at what time I checked my phone and saw the news from home. It was finally Aug. 14, 2018, back there, and the grand jury report on Catholic clerical abuse in many Pennsylvania dioceses had been released.
I don’t know how much longer it was before I realized that more abuse had been brought to light within the framework of an important Marian feast day. I don’t know how much longer after that it was before I realized that my offering for the salvation of child abusers, perhaps, had been accepted. Perhaps all my shaking was a sign of the shaking to come in the Church—that had already started, really.
No good mother wants to see her children come to harm, but every good mother knows that there are people out there who prey upon the most vulnerable. A good mother wants crimes brought to light and criminals brought to justice, knowing there is no justice without truth. A good mother accompanies her children to the witness stand.
I have a shadow-shape of pain in common with the victim-survivors of clerical abuse: the people whom God appointed to give us life didn’t care if they destroyed ours. When we victims as children loved, legitimately if innocently, loved the very people who did not love us, we were practically born to live out Christ’s command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us. After all, is there any greater curse than a life lived in the shadow of being used to gratify a powerful person’s sexual whims? My Lourdes bath showed me, albeit painfully, that if we victims will put our agony to work, powerful things will happen. Truth comes to light and shows us the way forward—a way that Our Lady wants laid bare for all to see, for all to walk on their way to her Son.
St. Bernadette is famously quoted as saying, “It is my job to inform, not to convince.” When asked her name several times, Our Lady of Lourdes finally responded, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” She is; we are not. We are all sinners. Only those sinners willing to dig in the dirt will eventually be washed clean, to see the truth beneath the filth.
And the truth shall set us free. May we all be tellers of the Truth. Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.