One advantage of not over-planning a vacation is that you leave yourself open to opportunities that arise. This week, we changed our planned daytrip to Lourdes on Saturday to an overnight trip on Tuesday and Wednesday.
At Sunday Mass here in Montpellier, we learned that an American cardinal, His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke, would be celebrating a Pontifical High Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes on Wednesday morning at 10 am. If we wanted to be at the Mass and do it as a day trip, we’d have to leave Montpellier no later than 5 am. Leaving at 2 pm Tuesday afternoon sounded much more pleasant. So Monday afternoon we booked a hotel room and a car.
The drive on Tuesday took longer than we expected, but by 7:30 pm we were checked in at our hotel in Lourdes. We were heading out to find something to eat, when it occurred to us that maybe we should check out the shrine first. As it turned out, it was a lucky break on our part. When we got to the shrine, we learned there was going to be a candlelight Marian procession starting at 9 pm. So we decided to hang out there for a while, hungry, and take some photos while we waited for the procession to start.
When the procession was preparing to begin, we noticed it was being led by the same American cardinal who’d be celebrating the next day’s Mass. This encouraged us to stick around even longer, still hungry, and join the procession ourselves. The queue of pilgrims in the procession was so long that it took over a quarter-hour for the end to reach the starting point. We know because we were almost at the end ourselves.
At the end of the procession, everyone gathered in the plaza in front of the basilica, and Cardinal Burke closed with a prayer and a blessing. It was around 10 pm, and because we were near the end of the procession, we were among the first to file out of the plaza. We still hadn’t eaten, so we found a snack bar and had a slice of pizza and a beer. We sat outside and watched for a half-hour as people walked by, many still carrying their candles. I think the only time I’ve seen so many priests and religious in one place was when I was in Rome.
Kathryn and I went back and forth on how early we should arrive at the basilica Wednesday for the 10 am Mass, and we settled on 9:15, although we in fact arrived a bit earlier than that, in part because we weren’t entirely sure where the Mass would be. A sign out front of the main part of the basilica, stating that the regularly scheduled 11 am Mass in Italian was moved to a side chapel, more or less confirmed we were in the right place.
We were hardly the first ones there. Priests and seminarians were busy preparing the altar, and the pipe organ was being tuned. The cardinal’s sermon was prepared in advance and would be delivered in French, so seminarians handed out copies of translations in English and Italian. I got an English copy for Kathryn.
Mass started promptly at 10 am, by which time the basilica was packed to standing room only. As the procession began, I noticed the cardinal was wearing a cappa magna, a cape with a long train that may be worn by bishops and cardinals. I’d read about the vestment before, and I seen pictures of them, but I’d never seen one in real life. That was pretty cool. It’s not worn during Mass itself, so there was a significant amount of ceremony involved in taking it off after the entrance and putting it back on before the recessional.
Mass was full ceremonial with a beautiful pipe organ accompanying the singing. Although I know most of the sung responses in Latin, the musical setting was unfamiliar to me. It seemed to be familiar to many in attendance, so I’m guessing it’s a setting that’s relatively well known in France.
I don’t usually use my camera during Holy Mass, but I made an exception this time. During the offertory, a collection was taken up, so while everyone was already distracted reaching for their wallets, I snapped several photos.
After Mass, Cardinal Burke and the rest of the clergy gathered outside the basilica to receive a round of applause from the faithful. You could hear cries of gratitude in multiple languages as His Eminence made his way to his car.
You might wonder why an American cardinal would be such a big deal here in France, but there’s a simple explanation. He is one of the few cardinals willing to promote the traditional Catholic rites and to celebrate them in public. The more traditional-minded Catholics turn out in droves to support those who support them. Indeed, that’s why we were there.
After we left the basilica, we headed back to the hotel, quickly checked out, and got on the road. We will visit Lourdes again. Next time, we’ll stay more than one night. But I’m grateful we had the flexibility to take advantage of this rare opportunity.