ATTLEBORO — This Christmas season more than 250,000 pilgrims from all over the world made the pilgrimage to the Festival of Lights at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette. Traveling in unpredictable New England weather and sometimes over snow-covered roads, they waited in long lines of traffic and braved biting winds to walk this holy ground.
An annual tradition, Catholics gather in community at the December Festival, but Our Lady of La Salette continues to summon faithful after the lights are extinguished. Year-‘round she urges people to embark on pilgrimage to this holy place.
"To people the world over, pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing, or even to perform penance," writes Phil Cousineau in The Art of Pilgrimage. "Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one without purpose has no soul."
The Bible chronicles the earliest pilgrimage 4,000 years ago when Abraham left Ur in search of the presence of God in the desert.
"Mass is my daily pilgrimage," writes Liz Kelly in 50 Reasons I Love Being Catholic. “It was not a conscious decision on my part to start attending Mass daily. I only know that I started to feel a gentle pull and a kind of sweet gnawing if I didn't attend frequently. Some pilgrimages sneak up on us like that and become a part of our daily lives. Others call us more dramatically, and we might travel far from home and familiar things across oceans and mountains and plains along uncertain paths."
The Virgin Mary is venerated by pilgrims around the world, who flock to the many shrines and churches created in her honor.
The High up in the French Alps in 1846, two children, Melanie Calvat, 14, and Maximin Giraud, 11, noticed a dazzling light and gradually saw a vision of the weeping Virgin Mary, sitting on a stone with her elbows resting on her knees, her face buried in her hands. "Come near, my children, do not be afraid," she said. "I am here to tell you great news."
According to the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, Mary's apparition at La Salette is a modern-day reminder of an ancient truth: that Mary constantly intercedes for us before God and calls us back to the message and way of her Son, Jesus. Consequently, the priests and brothers at the shrine offer pilgrims a place of retreat, rest and prayer, where we can be reconciled with God and others in a healing environment of peace and tranquility.
"Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while," Jesus tells his disciples.
Wearing my warmest clothing – sweater, slacks, boots, wool coat with hood, scarf and gloves – I take the winding country backroads of Freetown, Berkley, Dighton and Rehoboth to the Attleboro Shrine. While I drive, I think about my mission: to share the spiritual experience of a pilgrim on this cold and gray winter's day.
Arriving at the gate, I head across the huge lot toward the Welcome Center and park alongside the Outdoor Chapel. Exiting the car, I feel the frigid air envelop me. A statue of Jesus with arms outstretched greets me as I walk alone along the winding brick pathways.
Reaching my destination, I read the message in the Garden of the Apparition: "The Virgin Mary appeared to two children at La Salette in the French Alps on Sept. 19,1846. This is a representation of that event. Notice the two children in the middle of the hill looking down to where they first saw Mary sitting and weeping. She stood calling to them: ‘Come near my children; do not be afraid,’ and advanced a few steps to where she is seen speaking to them. At the end of her discourse, she climbed the slope in the pattern you see traced out by crosses and steps. At the top of the hill, she rose off the ground, stopped and spoke her final words: ‘Make this known to all my people.’ Then she looked up and stopped crying and disappeared."
Retracing her steps, I climb the stairs, I imagine I am on pilgrimage, starting from the imposing mountainside basilica about 50 miles south of Grenoble, France, and following the walking trail through breathtaking Alpine scenery up to the Valley of the Apparition near the village of La Salette.
From the pinnacle I look down at the stark, snow-dusted, New England landscape; and my reverie is broken. Cold and lonely, I walk to The Chapel of Light. Sitting on a bench, I watch the flickering blue lights, each lighted candle a special petition seeking Mary's intercession. A man is kneeling on the concrete floor, praying with arms outstretched before the statue of the Virgin.
In my silent prayers, I say thank you to the Blessed Mother for favors granted. Over the course of many years, I have lit candles here on behalf of my daughter's best friend, Christine. She recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl after 12 years of Marriage. I also ask Mary to intercede for Tracy, a lovely young friend who yearns for a baby of her own.
Walking to the Church, I attend the 12:10 p.m. Mass. The beautiful sanctuary fills with worshippers of all ages, from babies in carriages to the elderly walking gingerly with canes. Celebrating Mass is Father John Sullivan, a native of Boston who has been a Missionary of La Salette for 50 years. He also served in Argentina for 32 years as a missionary.
After Mass, I thank Father John Sullivan, M.S., and head to the Gift Shop. I purchase a book in remembrance of this day's experiences and head back out into the cold.
"We are all traveling toward something," writes Kelly. "We go out and come back, and the journey has changed us, has opened our eyes to new interior, spiritual landscapes by taking us to new lands."
(Reprinted by permission. The original article was written by Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent, published in The Anchor, Jan. 31, 2014, pg. 1&5)