A relic taken from the thigh bone of St Bernadette of Lourdes is to be taken on a tour around dioceses across Britain.
The relic is expected to arrive in autumn 2022, it was revealed, at last Friday’s press conference following the November meeting of the bishops of England and Wales.
St Bernadette is one of the most widely known and revered saints in the world due to the many miraculous healings attributed to her intercession and that of Our Lady of Lourdes, with her shrine in the south of France drawing millions of pilgrims from across the world.
St Bernadette was an uneducated French peasant girl who lived in the town of Lourdes, and suffered from both ill health and poverty.
In 1858 she received a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in the nearby grotto of Massabielle. According to St Bernadette, the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the guise of a girl of 12 no taller than Bernadette herself.
On a subsequent visit to the grotto the Virgin is reported to have appeared to Bernadette and said to her “ue soy era immaculada concepciou” – “I am the immaculate conception”. This vision occurred four years after the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX, and the events around Lourdes and St Bernadette were famous even in her own lifetime.
St Bernadette is both a figure who attracts both intense popular piety and is also closely associated with a central feature of Marian theology. While the Virgin is a focus for devotion worldwide, many English Catholics feel they have a special devotion to her, reflecting the tradition of England as the “dowry of Mary” and England’s own Marian apparition and shrine at Walsingham.
Canon Christopher Thomas, general secretary of the bishop’s conference of England and Wales, said it was the Shrine of Lourdes that approached the English and Welsh bishops with the offer of the pilgrimage of the relics and the bishops accepted.
He said: “It was a genuine offer made by the shrine in Lourdes. The bishops saw this as not only something that will remind us of the importance of pilgrimage in our lives and the importance of the place of Lourdes in the life of many Catholics and dioceses in this country, but it will remind us of the centrality of the lives of the saints because this always points us to that greater degree of virtue that we are called to in our living of the Catholic faith.”
The relics will be touring dioceses England, Wales and Scotland, and expectations in relation to the numbers of pilgrims they might attract are high.
When relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux visited Britain in 2009, more than 500,000 people came to venerate them. Another consideration is the difficulties that Covid has created for pilgrims seeking guidance and healing at the traditional shrine of St Bernadette in Lourdes, with the usual numbers, averaging in the millions and including thousands of sick and disabled individuals, greatly reduced by travel restrictions and health concerns.
British Catholics unable to make the trip in a time of pandemic will now have the chance to venerate the saint’s relic as it makes its way around the country.
One destination of the relics that has been confirmed is Shrewsbury Cathedral. Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies said: “Many pilgrims have journeyed to Lourdes over the years to pray alongside St Bernadette, and now it seems Lourdes is coming to us by the visit of the relics.”