Since 2007, the CA Hospitalite have organised the Pilgrimage candle, presenting it at the Grotto. This is now done every year via a procession from the statue of the Crowned Virgin. Every night, at least during the pilgrimage season (and when it is not raining!) there is the Torchlight Procession - that stunning candle-lit celebration of the Mother of God. All year long the candles of the faithful burn at the Grotto, and the birds in those trees opposite the water-taps do not know whether it is day or night.
What is the significance of all this for Catholics? Well, it’s not magic. Candles are what we call ‘sacramental’, something that functions for us as a sign of God breaking into our world. And they are a very good symbol indeed. They began in Catholic liturgy, of course, out of strict necessity: in the days of persecution mass, this was celebrated under cover of night, late at night or early in the morning, hidden away; and if you were to see what you were doing, and even for the reader to be able to read, it was necessary to light candles. When light dawned and persecution ended (though persecution has never really ended, nor will it, as long as the Church speaks God’s word to the world), so that mass could be celebrated more openly, we still kept our candles alight on the altar. They serve, of course, as a recollection of the times when it was dangerous to be Christian; but they function, more deeply, as a symbol of the light that is the Eucharist in our lives, the light that we must take home from our Lourdes pilgrimage. They also act as an image of the illumination of God that is shed on our lives by prayer and by acts of generosity.
At the Reformation there was a resistance to sacramentals like candles, incense and the crucifix, a fear that the pure light of the gospel had been lost in pagan superstition; and (as in many Reformation insights) there was something in that. But it is noticeable today how increasingly people outside the Catholic fold find it appropriate to light a candle as a symbol of praying for some person or some intention, perhaps muttering as they do so that ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. So that may be a part of what we do when as a pilgrimage we present that enormous candle at the Grotto, redolent of our prayerful intentions in Lourdes, knowing that it will continue to burn after we have returned home.
It goes deeper yet, however. For the candle, which we present in procession, is a sign (as indeed is our whole pilgrimage, for those who are in Lourdes and for those who cannot make it each year) that our journey to God is something that we do together. That is what it means to be People of God. Think of that extraordinary moment on Holy Saturday night, when the darkened church is slowly lit up by the passing of light from the Paschal Candle to all our candles, and the light roars through, putting darkness to flight. Each individual flame flickers when there is a breeze, and seems all too easily extinguished. Nevertheless, all those candles together light up the church, and are a sign that God’s light is guaranteed, has nothing to do with any merits of ours, everything to do with the fidelity of God that we celebrate at Lourdes (and, indeed, every time we go to mass). See it like that, and our pilgrimage candle is a massive sign of something very important indeed.
by Fr Nicholas King, SJ