Six men sat on a bench in their skivvies, waiting for Mama to give them a bath. I was one of them. We were a little uncomfortable to be thus exposed but had for the most part surrendered to the moment. The moment had come to bathe in the sacred waters at Lourdes.
Encouraged by our fellow pilgrims, Fr. Mark and I took our seat with the other men. From the looks of it, we were surrounded by tough Italians: thick moustaches, tanned and muscular forearms, and no nonsense looks in their honest faces. They were praying the rosary in Italian, and we joined them. We were all little boys again, waiting for Mother to give us our bath. How delightfully refreshing to find such simplicity again! One by one they called us into the bathing room, where a big man with gentle hands guided me to face the wall. “Take off your drawers,” he said in an Australian accent, “while I wrap this cloth about you.” Then he guided me towards the pool, where four pairs of hands guided me into the waters. They lowered me down, then pulled me up. “Now hold on to the bar in front of you and think of your intentions,” the big man instructed. I stood there and prayed: for my parents and siblings and cousins, for my parish, for my school, for my brother priests and the sisters who have taught me to love God. For the couples that I have married over 26 years and the people I’ve buried. For the babies I’ve baptized and the sinners I’ve absolved. For my own conversion, in memory of the waters of baptism that I was first led into on December 31, 1961, in a little Bronx parish called “Star of the Sea.” The cold water made my feet ache with pain as I prayed for what seemed five minutes. They led me out, I put on my drawers, and the big man asked me: “father, your blessing please.” I gave it in Latin, just to assure him that this naked shivering body in front of him had indeed received Holy Orders. I smiled sheepishly at the tough men in the outer chamber, shook their hands, said ciao and went back into the world.
That night I took a seat at the grotto. All kinds of people were sitting in silence, awaiting the 10pm Mass. I glanced nonchalantly around me: a young Spanish sister in flowing habit to my right, and a lean French farmer to my left. Again: that lamblike joyful peace of those who wait for God’s blessings. Lourdes in some way leads hearts and wills to Our Lady, she who perfectly received waited for God’s perfect will. I do believe I was healed that day: healed of my stubborn willfulness and distrust of God. May the healing last!