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Anglicans keep Lourdes anniversary

by Simon Caldwell

EIGHT Church of England bishops are together planning to make an unprecedented group pilgrimage to the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes on the 150th anniversary of the reported appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St Bernadette.

Since the early 1970s, Anglican bishops have visited the shrine in the foothills of the French Pyrenees at the rate of about one or two a year, but now, for the first time, the Society of Mary, one of the Church of England’s Catholic Societies, has organised a pilgrimage for a large group of Anglican bishops, along with about 400 lay worshippers.

The pilgrims will fly to Lourdes on 22 September, and celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham there two days later, before returning home on 26 September. The bishops are planning to take with them a “life-size” replica of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.

The Vicar of St Silas’s, Kentish Town, in London, the Revd Graeme Rowlands, who is organising the pilgrimage, said that the purpose of the visit was to help to fulfil the “Christian unity mission” of the Lourdes 150th-anniversary jubilee year. “We are the only pilgrimage that is representing the theme of Christian unity, and I am very pleased and very humbled by it really.”

The party will include the diocesan bishops of Blackburn and Gibraltar in Europe, the suffragans Whitby and Edmonton, and the “flying” bishops, Richborough, Beverley, and Ebbsfleet. They will be joined by Bishop Noël Jones, formerly of Sodor & Man. More are expected to sign up in the months to come.

The RC Bishop of East Anglia, the Rt Revd Michael Evans, who chairs the Department of Christian Unity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said that he was delighted that so many Anglican bishops would be visiting Lourdes together. “Many Christians believe that devotion to Mary is a key way towards the growing unity of Christians and we hope very much that this pilgrimage will further Anglicans and Catholics along the paths of unity.”

There were 18 reported Marian apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant girl, in 1858. The Virgin was said to have announced herself as the “Immaculate Conception” and told Bernadette to dig for a spring at which many seek healing. Six million pilgrims, many of them ill, disabled and dying, make pilgrimages to Lourdes each year.

To mark the jubilee year, the Roman Catholic Church has identified 12 missions that, besides Christian unity, include peace, care for the sick and marginalised, and conversion. Pope Benedict XVI is also offering a special indulgence to anybody who takes part in a public or private devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes on key dates during the year, which began on 8 December, the feast of the Conception, last year, and ends on the same day this year.

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