Throughout 2008, the Catholic Church celebrates the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. Last fall, Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes visited Washington, D.C., to share details of planned jubilee activities with the media. During his visit, the bishop spoke with Our Sunday Visitor on the importance of the jubilee.

Our Sunday Visitor: During the 150th anniversary, pilgrims will be invited to follow a "Way of the Jubilee" that visits significant locations in Bernadette's life and that symbolically leads from baptism to Eucharist. Could you tell OSV readers about that path, both in the historical and theological sense?

Bishop Jacques Perrier: This jubilee path has four steps, beginning with the place of Bernadette's baptism and ending where she received her first Eucharist.

We show the apparition inside Christian and Catholic life; inside the Church. It is not outside of it -- which is very significant today, when many people value the sacraments and the Church less and try to search in other places.

The home of Bernadette and her family is, in every respect, poor and humble. It is one place in the world where we can easily contemplate the beatitudes. It is also a place to meditate on the Magnificat.

People were not able to see God when he met Moses, but they were able to see Moses' face. During the apparition, people coming to the Grotto were not able to see the Blessed Virgin, but seeing Bernadette moved them to pray. The Grotto, therefore, is a place of meeting, of dialogue, of covenant. The Blessed Virgin doesn't take the place of God, but there's still a comparison here.

OSV: You've said that "Lourdes is not a museum, but its function is to bring alive the message and to proclaim it to the men and women of the 21st century." What does the message of Lourdes say to modern people?

Bishop Perrier: First, we are all significant to God. Second, the call to penance and conversion continues. Third, before it was a place of miracles, it was a place to pray. Today, people who are not accustomed to praying can learn at the Grotto -- or they can discover that it's not difficult to pray. That is a very significant message.

OSV: No single "great feast" is scheduled during the jubilee year; instead, there will be pilgrimages related to the 12 missions of Lourdes. Could you describe some of those missions and their role in the life of the universal Church?

Bishop Perrier: Let me mention three -- the call to conversion; to pray for peace; and welcoming believers from other religions.

At the very beginning is the Blessed Virgin and the name she revealed -- "I am the Immaculate Conception." Because Mary is without sin -- the Immaculate Conception -- she is a refuge of sinners. Mary has no contempt for sinners; she welcomes them. We see many graces of conversion at the Grotto. One of the missions of the Church is to call to conversion -- and to reveal that God doesn't condemn the sinner, but condemns the sin.

Another mission of Lourdes, revealed between the two world wars, is to pray for peace. Former prisoners of war made many pilgrimages. They came in thanksgiving, but also to pray for an end to war. German soldiers came to Lourdes, in uniform, after World War II. It was the first time that uniform was seen in France since the war.

A more recent mission is interreligious dialogue. A lot of Muslims and people from Indian religions are coming to Lourdes. Lourdes is a very, very Catholic place -- but it can welcome believers who are not Christian.

The message of Lourdes is able to bear new fruit, according to new needs. Lourdes and the jubilee year are not just for those inside the Church; we also need to consider the place of Lourdes in announcing the Gospel today.

OSV: You have said: "The message of Lourdes is uncomplicated but rich. It became richer throughout the past 150 years." How has our understanding deepened in that time -- and how might the jubilee year add a new level of understanding?

Bishop Perrier: For example, families have always come to Lourdes, but there were never special family programs. But Lourdes says something to all generations, so in the future, there will be special family programs.

Lourdes is usually associated only with sick people. And the presence of the sick is very important at Lourdes -- but what Lourdes can bring to the sick, it can bring to others. The breakdown of the family [requires healing], for instance.

OSV: The Church has officially recognized 67 miracle healings at Lourdes, and people have made spontaneous declarations of cures. But modern thinking is often skeptical of miracles, or says the age of miracles has passed. What are your thoughts about modern miracles?

Bishop Perrier: That is what was said to Bernadette 150 years ago -- miracles are not for today, but a thing of the past. Fifty years ago, some people wanted to take the miracles out of the Gospels, because they were almost 2,000 years old. Today, some people will also deny miracles so the Church will appear more "contemporary"; it is not fashionable anymore.

Today, we understand the human person is more complicated than we thought 150 years ago. For example, nowadays, a doctor may not say a disease is incurable. Recognizing a cure is more difficult and rare today.

OSV: It's been proposed that pilgrimages to Lourdes should not be reduced to a simple "miracle or no miracle" outcome, because it's also about a journey of faith, yes?

Bishop Perrier: Bernadette always said it was not the Lourdes water that cured people, but their faith and prayers. At Lourdes, as in the Gospels, it is not always the faith of the person being cured, but also of other people.

OSV: Eight million pilgrims are expected during the jubilee year. How might those who can't visit Lourdes during the 150th anniversary make a spiritual pilgrimage?

Bishop Perrier: For those with Internet access, there will be images on the sanctuary website, including a webcam, to help them pray.

A novena prayer in six different languages will be offered -- nine themes of prayer for nine days. Each will be related to an event in Bernadette's life. For example, the first day will be her baptism; the second will be linked to where she lived with her family; the third will be the very first apparition; and the following days, other significant apparitions; and the last day, Bernadette's first Communion and her discovery that she wanted to serve the poor.

A jubilee prayer will also be offered in several languages. People could also read books, attend a virtual pilgrimage or watch EWTN. Everyone will be able to follow, spiritually, the jubilee path.

Devotion could earn indulgence

Pope Benedict XVI approved a special plenary indulgence marking the 150th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions. Catholics can receive a plenary indulgence by participating in a public or private devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes.

The indulgence can be gained through a pilgrimage to Lourdes from now until Dec. 8 or by a visit through Feb. 11 to any public shrine, sanctuary or other worthy place dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Pilgrims visiting Lourdes should follow the Jubilee Way, meditating at each site and praying the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the special jubilee prayer or a prayer to Mary. Pilgrims at other sites dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes should also recite these prayers. Those who are homebound can earn the indulgence through private prayer through Feb. 11.

An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due for sins committed. A plenary indulgence is the remission of all punishment.

The normal requirements for a plenary indulgence apply: sacramental confession, reception of the Eucharist, prayer for the intentions of the pope and a spirit of total detachment from sin.

Kimberley Heatherington writes from Virginia. Visit www.lourdes2008.com for more information.