LOURDES, France — Charlotte Kiesel just completed her 27th pilgrimage to Lourdes — the Marian shrine in France where the Virgin Mary first appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 and where the sick still flock to obtain a reprieve from chronic disease, a handicap or terminal cancer.
Desperation brought Kiesel to Lourdes for her first visit in 1987, after failing to locate a bone-marrow match for her daughter, Katie, a cancer patient.
Decades later, Katie is still healthy, and Kiesel, now a member of the Order of Malta, returns every year to serve in the baths at the grotto, where many miracles have been recorded since the Virgin first appeared to St. Bernadette.
Kiesel greets a stream of pilgrims, some of whom arrive by wheelchairs or stretchers. She tenderly helps women and girls modestly disrobe and prays with them as their bodies are dipped into the spring-fed waters. She draws them close, as they often weep and sometimes cling to her afterward.
At Lourdes, the sick, traditionally referred to by the French word malades, receive the honor and service the world accords the powerful. They are transported in carts that are pushed and pulled by knights and dames of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Malta, which completed its 55th international pilgrimage to Lourdes May 3-7.
Care for the Sick
A sign of contradiction in the West, where the chronically sick and disabled are often pushed to the sidelines and even exterminated in the womb, Lourdes is a place where the sick are embraced as the Church’s "greatest treasure."
"The ruler of this world … charges us with foolishness in spending our time and resources on the sick and suffering," said Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu, a chaplain of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, based in California, during a May 7 homily.
"Yet because we believe in Jesus, we instead push and pull our beloved malades in a triumphal procession, parading them as the greatest treasures of our Church," said the bishop.
The Western Association of the Order of Malta, one of three U.S.-based associations, brings about 250-300 pilgrims to Lourdes each spring, including 50 malades. The rest are knights, dames, volunteers and companions of the sick, such as spouses or parents. Malade candidates are practicing Catholics who have submitted an application to the order, which reviews their medical diagnosis, invites suitable candidates to join the pilgrimage and covers all their travel and hotel expenses.
The annual Lourdes pilgrimage involves months of planning by members of the order, who also serve the sick and the poor through prison ministry, at maternity homes for unwed mothers, with literacy programs, as well as through hospital visitation and at homeless shelters. Knights and dames include physicians and nurses who volunteer at medical clinics in low-income areas, join medical missions to Third World nations like Haiti and participate on the Lourdes pilgrimage, supervising the care of the malades. Every July, the Western Association also sponsors a young-adults summer pilgrimage, providing service opportunities at the shrine.
Tradition of Noble Service
The 2013 pilgrimage came as the international Rome-based order, formally titled the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, marks the 900th anniversary of its founding by Blessed Gérard Thom, dating back to 1048.
At that time, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem — the monastic community that opened a convent, church and hospital, which served all religious believers in Jerusalem — became independent under the direction of its founder.
Msgr. Steven Otellini, a chaplain in the Western Association of the Order of Malta and the pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, Calif., told the Register that the unique, countercultural traditions of the Lourdes pilgrimage arise from Gérard’s original charism of hospitality for the poor and the sick.
"It was always Gérard’s intention to treat the poor and the sick as ‘betters.’ People looked down on them, but Gérard wanted them to be treated as Our Lord’s poor and sick," said Msgr. Otellini.
"In the hospitals and infirmaries, they served the sick on silver and had individual feather beds — very unusual for the time," explained the chaplain.
"With the order made up of nobles, it was a reverse of society: the top taking care of the bottom," he added, referring to the tradition of European Catholic nobles and aristocrats joining the order after its founding, and, beginning in the 20th century, taking part in the annual Lourdes pilgrimage.
At Lourdes, members and volunteers wear "service uniforms" that add to the religious pageantry distinctive of this French shrine and hark back to the founding of the order, which was connected to a Benedictine abbey in Jerusalem, where the monks wore black robes.
Body and Soul Refreshed
On their first day in Lourdes, the malades’ feet are washed by members of the Western Association and volunteers, a reminder of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and his admonition in John 13:12-17 that those who believe in him must follow his path of humble service.
For the remainder of the week, the malades, always accompanied by members of the order and volunteers, are the center of splendid liturgies and Eucharistic processions that celebrate the love and hope that Jesus Christ extends to "the least of these."
The joy-filled spiritual rhythms of Lourdes, where Mary’s "gentle breeze" — first described by St. Bernadette — continues to animate the soul in fresh, unexpected ways, lead many members of the order to return year after year.
Yet chaplains of the Order of Malta who joined the 2013 pilgrimage, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who recently completed cancer treatment, reminded their fellow pilgrims that most of the spiritual treasures offered here — like daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration — are available back home and should be incorporated into weekly routines.
One malade on the pilgrimage — Greg Spitz, a father of six and a construction inspector from California — accepted the order’s invitation to come to Lourdes with some trepidation.
"I didn’t feel I was worthy to come. In comparison to other malades, my condition wasn’t critical: I am still in the early stages of a disease. After I got to Lourdes, one knight told me, ‘You are going to be a tough nut, but you will be okay.’"
Recalled Spitz: "My moment came when my wife, Celeste, and I had a difficult talk, and she helped me dig into my soul. I uncovered the feeling of rejection I had received from my father long ago. I had spent my life not wanting to be close to anybody because of that."
Husband and wife went to the baths at the grotto, and Spitz emerged with a deep sense of peace, a reminder that every miracle of Lourdes involves the healing of the soul.
He called Lourdes "a piece of heaven on earth. I didn’t see any harsh interactions, but a sense of joy and helpfulness," he said.
Back home now, Spitz hopes to share the gifts he received at Lourdes with others who might be carrying the same burdens he shouldered for decades.
But his first priority is his wife.
"We’re here to take care of one another," said Spitz, "and get each of us to heaven."
Charlotte Kiesel, during her years ministering to malades at the grotto, has witnessed a multitude of spiritual epiphanies that testify to the abundant graces available at Lourdes.
"When you work in the baths, it puts it all in perspective," Kiesel said. "Everyone suffers, and everyone needs Our Lord."
Joan Frawley Desmond is a member of the Order of Malta.