On Saturday 18 February 2023, the bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral rang for a full thirty minutes prior to Mass, resounding through the streets of Melbourne for what turned out to be one of the largest events at the Cathedral in many years: the Lourdes Day Mass. More than 3000 people attended, from Melbourne and beyond, an opportunity for Australians unable to visit Lourdes to celebrate together, receive a blessing for good health, some rosary beads, and a bottle of water from the Lourdes sanctuary.

The event was organised by the Order of Malta Australia, one of the oldest continuing chivalric orders in the world.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli celebrated the Mass, assisted by chaplains of the Order of Malta. In his homily, Archbishop Comensoli said that Lourdes reminds us that the poor and sick are ‘our true Lords and Ladies, our friends in Christ’.

The shrine in Lourdes, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range in southern France, is one of the most famous sites of religious pilgrimage in the world. Its story goes back to 1858, when a young girl, Bernadatte Soubirous, witnessed the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary 18 times at a nearby grotto. Bernadette, only 14 at the time, was from a poverty-struck family, and suffered from both asthma and cholera.

During one of the apparitions, Mary asked her to dig in the ground by the grotto, instructing Bernadette to ‘tell the priests that people should come here in procession and that a chapel should be built on the site.’ When Bernadette dug, fresh spring water came up, in which, to this day, pilgrims have bathed. Countless people have experienced physical and spiritual healing during their visits to this sanctuary.

Archbishop Comensoli recalled his experience of pilgrimages to Lourdes while living in Scotland. ‘Each summer specially fitted buses—with beds and accessibility equipment—would travel from Edinburgh, through England, and across France, filled with a mix of sick and disabled people and young assistants,’ he said. ‘The Lourdes pilgrimage with the sick and disabled is a wonderful thing to behold.’

Lourdes is ‘a place where God’s presence is especially felt … [where] those people—God’s little ones who struggle—are remembered and renewed.’

‘God knows each of his children personally, and wishes to make them known to one another. Healing, mercy, compassion, companionship—these signs of God’s presence are always personal,’ he said.

The Order of Malta has a special calling placed upon them, he went on, to recognise the presence of God in the poor and needy.

The Sovereign Order of Malta is a lay religious order that undertakes humanitarian projects in 120 countries. Their story goes back to the 11th century, to the formation of the ‘Knights Hospitaller’, an organisation of knights dedicated to serving pilgrims travelling to and from Jerusalem. Their mission is to uphold the dignity of the human person and to care for those in need, living out the unique spirituality of their order.

The Archbishop observed that like Mary, attentive to the needs of the young newlyweds at Cana, the Order of Malta is called to be attentive to the presence of God ‘in the person immediately before them … to go looking for their need, and to do something about it.’

Following the Mass, the members of the Order of Malta, aided by students from Loreto and Genazzano colleges, handed out gift packages to the people, including rosaries and bottles of water from Lourdes. Many who had visited Lourdes in the past said the event brought back cherished memories, and one attendee remarked, ‘When you see this, you know that the Spirit is alive and well.’

Prior to COVID, the Lourdes Day Mass was celebrated on the first Saturday of December, but the event is now held on the Saturday closest to 11 February, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.