But that afternoon, over lunch with members of the Order of Malta, the charitable organization that sponsors an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes for the sick, a young seminarian told me about his own time at the baths. All one had to do, he said, was show up an hour before they opened to the afternoon crowds.
So along with 30 or 40 other men, I lined up under a granite portico at 1:00 p.m. Presently an official emerged and began calling out languages and selecting individuals. (Because of the polyglot crowds, the shrine aims for a mix of languages to aid at the baths.) When he called out Anglais? a dozen men raised their hands and I despaired of being chosen. But someone pushed me forward and said, Do you need a priest? He pointed to my collar, the official nodded and I took my place with everyone else.
We ascended a flight of stairs, dressed in blue aprons and returned downstairs. After we prayed in four languages, the first thing our chief said was Pas de vitesse. No one should ever be rushed. Always, he said, tranquillité.
Our instructor arranged us in groups of six and we entered the small antechambers that are curtained off from each marble tub. Four of us would help the pilgrims undress. Two would do the immersions. Shocked, I heard him say that our group would be working with the severely handicapped. Those unable to stand or walk would be brought into the baths on a wooden chair and lifted by a cloth mesh into the water. That would take four men. I admitted that I might not be strong enough to do this kind of work. He smiled and said in English, Do not worry, Father.
Along with a friendly Knight of Malta from Italy, I was assigned to work inside, next to the marble bath. Support the man from behind like this, I was told: your left hand on his shoulder and your right holding his wrist firmly. Lead him down the stairs and onto the first step. Ask if he wishes to pray and to ask Mary for an intention. Then lead him into the water, ask him to sit, slowly lean him backwards, stand him up and then ask if he would like a cup of water. But slowly, he stressed. Pas de vitesse. Every pilgrim needs time to pray.
Before I could collect my thoughts, the curtains parted and a partially paralyzed man supported by two volunteers hobbled into the chamber. Gently they pulled off his undershorts, wrapped the customary wet towel around his waist and led him to the lip of the bath. I put my arm around his shoulder, held his wrist tightly and asked if he would like to pray. In labored Spanish he began, Dios te salve, María.... When we raised him out of the water he wept.
After he left, the other volunteer swirled the white towel through the icy water. Together we wrung it out, and I thought of the passage in the Gospel of John, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet with a towel wrapped around his waist. A theology professor once told me that this act was as much a part of the Last Supper as was the Eucharist, and so perhaps we should do this every Sunday, too.
For the next three hours the curtains opened again and again, and in came the people of God: a man with microcephalus; a taciturn Frenchman with a catheter in his chest (a doctor cautioned us not to wet him above the waist); three smiling young men from Spain; a crippled man with many scars from many tumors, accompanied by his father, a white-haired Irishman. He was supposed to die 20 years ago, the father said, but we came to Lourdes and he’s still here. As I helped dress him, the young man said, Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I had not done this kind of work since I was a Jesuit novice. But as I wrung out the wet towels, I thought that this is what the priesthood should be more like: servant leadership. Taking our cues from laypeople who know about mercy, who know about giving people what they need, even if it is something as simple as time.
At the end of the day, our leader asked if any of us wanted to use the baths, with the others to help. Before I stepped into the cold water, he whispered, Pas de vitesse, mon père.