On journey toward God with Mary on pilgrimages across the world

November 28, 2023

Pilgrims are seen carrying candles while moving in procession at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France during a Marian celebration in this long-exposure photograph. Every day, from April to October, a candlelight Marian procession takes place at night in Lourdes, moving from the Grotto of Apparitions to the esplanade of the Rosary Basilica. (CNS photo)

HOUSTON — In the midst of December, several celebrations involve our Mother of God with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary on Dec. 8, Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day on Dec. 12 and Our Savior’s birth on Dec. 25.

On a recent Marian pilgrimage with a group of 37, mostly parishioners from St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park, Father Reginald Samuels led the 13-day journey toward God at shrines starting with Fatima, Portugal; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and Lourdes, France.

The pilgrimage group arrived at Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel in Fatima on Oct. 11 to celebrate their first Mass in Europe. Their minds and prayers focused on peace, with war breaking out in Israel and Palestine and continuing battles in Ukraine.

The Mass in Fatima began with a reading from the book of the Apocalypse. “Here God lives among men… His name is God-with-them… He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death and no more mourning or sadness.”

The group was relieved to find out that other pilgrimages traveling in the Holy Land and trapped in Israel during the violence were finally able to leave for home through Jordan and Egypt.

Father Samuels said, “The Marian shrine pilgrimage was a journey of faith. Experiencing the intersection of history, faith and culture allowed my fellow pilgrims and I to grow closer to God and helped us to grow in fellowship with other pilgrims from throughout the world at all the Holy sites.”

The candlelight procession in Fatima on the night of Oct. 11 was packed with thousands of pilgrims from around the world celebrating apparitions of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children at the Cova da Iria (a valley) in the parish of Fatima in 1917. Our Lady of Fatima warned the children that World War I would soon end, but World War II would begin and urged them to pray the Rosary.

The inspiring night procession followed behind a large, white-lit cross carried by servers and others carrying flags from various countries. The crowd, in unison, prayed the Rosary aloud and sang “Ave Maria” while walking together, holding their candles toward the outside altar.

A tall pillar highlights a statue of Jesus rising with outstretched arms in the middle of the plaza overlooking the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Pilgrims can feel just a touch of the pain inflicted on Mary and her Son. Tears flow freely, but also love caresses hearts and calms souls despite such war and hate in the world — another blessing from Our Lady of Fatima.

Then on to Spain and the Cathedral Basilica of Santiago de Compostela, part of the World Heritage Site in Galicia and traditionally considered the burial of St. James the Great, the first martyred apostle of Jesus Christ. In AD 44, he was beheaded in Jerusalem, and his remains were later transferred by boat to where the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral now stands.

The ancient church — built, burned, and rebuilt throughout the centuries — serves as a climatic ending for pilgrims who have walked hundreds of miles of varying paths of The Way (El Camino), where St. James walked during his evangelization in what is now Spain. Some of those exhausted modern-day pilgrims lay resting on the cobblestone plaza in front of the cathedral with their backpacks, dogs, and hiking poles beside them.

The St. Hyacinth group of pilgrims attended the crowded Mass at the cathedral while Father Samuels concelebrated with several priests and a bishop. The finale included a gigantic “Botafumeiro,” a famous thurible used to scatter plumes of smoke from incense over the altar and pews in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

Made of an alloy of bronze and brass, the thurible is one of the largest in the world at more than five feet tall and more than 100 pounds. It traditionally takes eight men dressed in robes to swing the thurible hanging from multiple thick ropes and pulleys as it picks up speed and swings over the heads of those gasping at the sight.

The Botafumeiro, taking place since at least the 12th century, is especially celebrated with its swinging motion during the Pilgrim’s Mass and other solemn dates, where it can reach speeds of about 60 kilometers (about 37.28 mi) an hour to cleanse the church and send the prayers of the pilgrims to God.

The packed Mass on Oct. 12 was filled with families celebrating the national holiday in Spain in which Columbus Day coincides with the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar. That is the name given to the Blessed Virgin Mary for the traditional belief that Mary, while living in Jerusalem, supernaturally appeared to the Apostle James the Greater in AD 40. She consoled and encouraged him to continue preaching despite the dangers.

This appearance is said to be the only recorded instance of Mary exhibiting the mystical phenomenon of bilocation. Among Catholics, it is also considered the first Marian apparition and unique because it happened while Mary was still living on Earth.

But the last Marian shrine on the pilgrimage — Lourdes, France — takes the breath away with its natural beauty, and the massive 130-acre Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes spread out with three basilicas. About eight million pilgrims each year visit the small village of only 17,000 in a valley cradled by the tree-covered mountains of the Pyrenees and the fast-flowing Gave de Pau River.

The group arrived on Oct. 15, Sunday evening, and immediately began preparing for the 9 p.m. candlelight procession. Gathering by the grotto and river, people began processing toward the plaza around the huge 30-foot white statue of Our Lady of Lourdes wearing her blue sash.

Our Lady of Lourdes is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary for her apparitions in 1858 in the grotto at Lourdes to St. Bernadette Soubirous, then a 14-year-old peasant girl gathering firewood. Our Lady, naming herself the Immaculate Conception, instructed Bernadette to dig in the ground nearby, from which came a spring with healing properties, active to this day.

The rocky Massabielle Grotto is the very place where 18 apparitions occurred, and within it is the spring that Bernadette discovered. To the right of the grotto are the water taps where pilgrims can drink the Lourdes water. Those who wish can also go to the Sanctuary Baths and perform the water gesture when Mary told Bernadette to wash her face and drink of the spring. No total immersions have been allowed since the pandemic, but the experience remains spiritually cleansing.

In all these Marian sites, the Holy Virgin invites everyone to regard Earth as a place of pilgrimage toward our final home — Heaven. We are all pilgrims in need of Mary to help guide us toward God, as she was the first to say “Yes!” to our Lord.