The frail 84-year old pope traveling to Lourdes this weekend is clearly not well. And at this Marian shrine in the Pyrenees, he will encounter thousands of sick people - some bent like pretzels from multiple sclerosis, some in the terminal stages of cancer, some who hope to die during this pilgrimage.
But John Paul II is not flying to Lourdes in the hope of being healed. In fact, as this writer, a Protestant, has found during many reporting trips to this remarkable place, most patients going there have no such expectations, even though inexplicable healings have indeed occurred.
There is no other spot in the world where the ill fraternize - in the literal sense of the word - as intensely with the healthy as Lourdes. There is no place where strapping nobles and university professors, wonderful young men and women brimming with health, cheerfully take care of the sick for 16 hours every day, often spending their nights curled up on the floor below the foot-end of their patients' beds.
Lourdes is profoundly counter-cultural. It is a mass gathering of those who affirm the "you" as opposed to the "me," which is why the West's anthropocentric, anti-Catholic and in the final analysis anti-Christian elites find Lourdes so scandalous -- pointing, often dishonestly, to the kitsch that is for sale there.
True, hawking Mary as a pop-top plastic container for holy water or Mary as a cigarette lighter is a grotesque manifestation of bad taste. But that's not what Lourdes is all about. This is not why 6 million women, men and children journey to this idyllic spot in the mountains every year.
Lourdes is about "praising God for his great gifts;" that's why the handicapped pope joins other handicapped and able-bodied Christians in pilgrimage, according to Bishop Renato Boccardo, the organizer of his trip.
And one of these gifts is the Virgin Mary, Boccardo continued. As a tribute to her, John Paul II will confer a rare papal honor to the sanctuary - a golden rose. Since the 11th century, popes have offered this gift, a spiritual symbol as well as an object of intrinsic beauty, to princes and kings.
John Paul II flies to Lourdes to observe the 150th anniversary of the dogma of Immaculate Conception, which to Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox alike is seen as church-dividing. Most French Catholic laymen I have spoken with about this had no idea what it means. They think it is an affirmation of the faith in Mary's virginity and therefore conclude that other Christians deny it.
But this isn't so. The dogma states that Mary herself was conceived without sin. The Catholic Church, especially under a Polish and therefore by definition "Marian" pope, lays heavy emphasis on it; many of its sanctuaries are called "Immaculate Conception."
But whether the Vatican considers it a theological essential is another matter. "In all the ecumenical dialogues I have attended, the Romans never brought up this issue," Munich University's Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the world's leading Protestant theologians, told United Press International.
Lourdes is arguably the world's stronghold of this doctrine because in 1858, four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed it, the Virgin Mary is believed to have confirmed its verity in her apparition to Bernadette Soubirous, a miller's daughter. In her dialect called Occitan, once the language of the troubadours, Mary allegedly said, "Qué soy era l'Immaculada Concepciou" (I am the Immaculate Conception).
What does Pannenberg think about apparitions like these? "I need not have an explanation for them. They are a fact of Christian faith experiences, which have effects. One must not deny such things," said Pannenberg, a Lutheran.
The point is that whatever healings occur in sites such as Lourdes - and that they undeniably happen - they are "God's work," just as any other cures of illnesses. The pope would probably concur.
And though Protestant and Orthodox would presumably never buy into the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, they would agree with the pope's assessment of the importance of Mary, especially in this era marked by global egotism.
As George Weigel related in his magnificent biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, Mary is, in the eyes of the pontiff "the first disciple; indeed Mary's fiat ("Be it done onto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38) and its unique role in the Incarnation of the Son of God had made discipleship possible to others."
There exists, then, a papal form of feminism, which differs dramatically from the ideology of that same name. In Weigel's words, "To be a disciple of Christ is to be like Mary, prepared to dispose oneself utterly to the will of God." Marian piety is authentic when it leads beyond Mary "to a more intense relationship with Christ, which means with the Holy Trinity itself."
Seen in this light, the pope's pilgrimage to the Pyrenees will be a highly counter-cultural expedition. It will affirm the Marian - and quintessentially Christian -- expression "Totus tuum" (totally yours), which is the very opposite of the postmodern "Me, Me, Me."
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