The cult of the Virgin of Lourdes is followed by many in Enna, and every year in May a train loaded with pilgrims, volunteers, and seriously ill people travels to Lourdes. It is called the White Train. Lourdes is a place for pilgrimages for Catholics from all over the world, and every year around five million visit the cave where the apparitions happened.
In 1858, Our Lady appeared to a little girl named Bernadette Soubirous in a cave called Massabielle in Lourdes. The apparitions occurred for five months, and were initially seen with skepticism by the Catholic Church, but when the apparition revealed herself to be the Immaculate Conception, all doubts were removed. In fact, the little girl couldn’t understand a deep theological concept like that of the Virgin Mary.
The journey from Enna to Lourdes takes forty-eight hours, as the White Train stops continuously to give precedence to regular trains. The volunteer’s main task is serving meals in the train and pushing the wheelchairs once arriving in Lourdes. Only the most expert volunteers look after people with serious disabilities.
One year after Giuseppina’s death, I still acted like an automaton and a dark fog separated me from the rest of the world. The police had investigated the incident for a few months, but I was eventually acquitted. My mother was very worried about me. She had no idea what to do, and confined herself to praying for me. Moreover, every week she used to go to the Convent of Saint Marc to ask the nuns to pray for me as well. She hoped that all those prayers would sooner or later rid me of my heavy depression.
“What about going to Lourdes?” she said one day.
I was so clouded that I didn’t have the strength and will to answer her. But she insisted. “Do you want to go to Lourdes on the White Train? It leaves from Enna in ten days. It is a good opportunity to take your mind off your idea you are guilty of Giuseppina’s death.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said curtly.
“But it is a good opportunity to help the sick!” my mother said.
I actually considered myself a social waste, but the thought that I could be helpful to somebody in need made me feel less despicable. Moreover, I couldn’t remain in a state of inactivity forever. I had stayed at home like a prisoner for a year, but sooner or later I had to come down from my ivory tower.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I said, and a feeble ray of hope revived in my heart. Maybe someday I would come back to life as a normal human being.
After twelve months spent in my room reading books, magazines, and listening to the radio, my eyes were not accustomed to daylight. My mother had arranged everything for my journey, including packing my luggage and providing my volunteer uniform, which was brown, while the ladies wore white skirts, white stockings, blue cloaks, and veils similar to those of nuns.
My parents came to see me off at the station and entrusted me to the priest who was the spiritual guide of the pilgrimage. He was from a town near Enna called Valguarnera Caropepe. Father Guido was a red-haired man who, despite the reformation of the Second Vatican Council that had given priests the freedom of dressing, still wore a cassock.
The train was very old, and two special cars dating back to the Second World War had been arranged to accommodate disabled people on stretchers. The two cars still bore the huge red crosses from the war. We didn’t have any hoist, so we had to lift the people on stretchers into the cars by hand. It wasn’t that hard a task, since we had many volunteers to do the work.
We had finished lifting stretchers when I saw a stretcher on wheels coming from the side entrance of the station. On it was a young man who had to weigh nearly 200 kilos. I couldn’t imagine how we were going to get him on the train. It took six of us to lift the stretcher. My arms and legs were still weak after a year of inaction, but through our joint efforts we finally set him on the train.
It was the late afternoon when the train finally left the station. The sun was setting beyond the mountains, and in a few hours we would serve dinner to the pilgrims and invalids.
Meanwhile, I went to my compartment and watched the green countryside and the wheat that waved under the breeze through the window. My eyes were looking outside, but my mind still saw the car plunging down into the ravine with its human load. Apparently, going out of my house had changed nothing. I was as absentminded and depressed as I was when secluded in my room. The environment had changed, but my heart was still shut to life.
Before entering the ferry from Messina to mainland Italy, the train stopped many times to take on more sick people, pilgrims, and volunteers. There were four volunteers in our compartment, but from time to time Father Guido came and sat down to chat with us.
When the train left the station in Catania we started serving dinner. The train was very long, and every volunteer was given the task of serving a certain car. I was told to serve dinner in the car with the people who were the most seriously ill.
I was doing just that when I heard someone call out my name. I turned back, thinking that another volunteer from Enna was calling me, but I didn’t see anybody.
“Vincenzino, Vincenzino!” the voice kept calling.
I stopped serving and saw that it was the fat young man that we had lifted on the car that was calling me.
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
“It is written on your badge!” he answered.
I was so absentminded that I hadn’t paid attention to the badge on my uniform.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“My name is Carmelo, and I want to thank you for the great effort you made in lifting me. As you see, my body is all out of proportion. My weight keeps increasing more and more, and all I can move are my head, eyes, and lips. All the rest is paralyzed like dead flesh. I can see that you are not peaceful but, believe me, your adverse fortune is nothing compared to mine.”
Tears streamed down his big cheeks.
“Can you see the moon and the stars out of the window?” he asked.
I bent my head and Carmelo also slowly turned his head to watch the full moon.
“Ask the moon and the stars if it is right that my body lies on a stretcher from my birth to my death, while my mind is clear and realizes the uselessness of my life.”
His words dumbfounded me. I had thought that only my problems existed and other people were immune from them. After Giuseppina’s death, I had isolated myself in my room, thinking that I was the most unlucky person in the world. But now, Carmelo was opening my eyes to real life; his condition was far worse than mine!
“Tell me,” continued Carmelo, “why there are half-men like me? I have done nothing to deserve such miserable luck.
Do you think that my harrowing life derives from God or from a different malicious being? I am completely useless. While you may be helpful to others, Vincenzino, I am just human waste who is kept alive by a moral and criminal code that doesn’t allow society to kill the heap of flesh I am.”
It was as if I had been catapulted to life again. After a long time of seclusion, now in front of me was someone who was talking to me and wanted me to answer him, but I actually didn’t know what to say. I looked around to see if the meals had all been served, and noticed that the other volunteers had done the work in my place. As for Carmelo, he had been fed in advance by a qualified nurse.
As for the second of his questions, my answer sprang from my heart naturally.
“You are not a useless person, Carmelo. Thanks to you, I am coming back to life. I have been living like a vegetable for a year, except for speaking with my mother in monosyllables. Now, talking with you has been as if a thunderbolt has fallen on me. You have shocked me! Now I can see and watch you, while I saw no one before so immersed in my thoughts as I was.”
“What happened to you?” asked Carmelo.
“It is an old love story that ended tragically, but now I can see that there are people like you who have no hope to live a normal life, while I am in a better condition. You have been like a mirror for me. Through you, I have looked inside myself and realized the uselessness of continuing to torture myself.”
“What about my first question?” asked Carmelo.
During my year of insulation, I read many books and magazines. One of the most significant was the Book of Job in the Bible.
“Do you know the story of Job, Carmelo?”
“I have heard something about him. Job was renowned because of his patience, right?”
“Job was a rich, pious man,” I answered, “who later lost all his riches, his children, and even his body became purulent. ‘What have I done to deserve such bad luck?’ Job asked God one day. The answer was that man cannot know what God’s plans for us are. Therefore, Carmelo, accept your situation and do your best to live your life fully, even under such bad conditions.”
The forty-eight hours spent on the train seemed never ending, but the other volunteers in our compartment were cheerful. From time to time, Father Guido also joined us to say the rosary. When we arrived at the station in Lourdes, we had to offload the baggage and take the invalids to the hospitals. Then we volunteers went to the hotel. My task was to carry the invalids from one place to another.
The wheelchairs in Lourdes had a handle in the front, while some disabled people had their own personal wheelchairs that could be pushed. Every day, in the morning and the afternoon, the disabled in their wheelchairs were lined up in the hospital courtyard and the volunteers took them wherever they liked to go. The disabled usually wanted to go to the Massabielle Cave to pray before the statues of Our Lady and Saint Bernadette, or to the baths, which stand in the place where Saint Bernadette found a spring by digging in the ground with her hands. This water was supposed to be miraculous, and several miracles have actually been recorded and corroborated by the Catholic Church. People who wanted to have a bath were just dipped into the water for a few seconds. They got dressed while they were still wet, but the water had the properties of drying immediately, so towels were not needed.
There were frequent Masses both in the cave and in the churches and basilicas. In the late afternoon, the sick and disabled were lined up in the vast square in front of the basilica and Holy Communion was given to them.
One afternoon while I was in the square looking after a sick old man, I lost my faith. I had the sensation that God was just a human creation. I saw the earth and the universe like matter with no spirit inside and no God that could vivify it. It was a real paradox that I had come to Lourdes to strengthen my faith in God and in life, but instead I had become an atheist. I remained in this condition as a disbeliever for several months, but with the passing time I felt that my life was completely empty without Jesus. After the terrible accident with Giuseppina, my only anchor was Jesus. Therefore, my atheism didn’t last long, and for the rest of my life Jesus has been my only safe harbor.
During my staying in Lourdes, I wanted to do my very best to serve the sick people that I looked after. One afternoon I took a sick lady from the hospital courtyard. She was around sixty years old and dressed in black.
“Where would you like me to take you?” I asked.
“I want to go shopping!” she answered.
In Lourdes, there are so many shops that sell holy images, rosary beads, small statues, and every kind of holy item, that sometimes I had the impression that big business gravitated around the cult of Our Lady.
The sick lady wanted to buy a small golden medal, so we went around many shops to find the item she liked. After two hours of shopping, she found the one she wanted. Afterwards, she wanted me to take her to the top of the hill, as she wanted to cover the Stations of the Cross. At last, after a long day of walking, I took her back to the hospital.
As soon as we arrived at the hospital courtyard, the sick lady got up from the wheelchair and walked at a brisk pace. I looked at her with a slight annoyance. Why had she asked me to carry her around when she was able to walk by herself? But
suddenly the lady started crying out, “It is a miracle! A miracle! I couldn’t walk before. That volunteer can testify to it,” she said, pointing to me.
A few people gathered around me. “Is it true?” one of them asked.
“It was really a miracle?” he insisted.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I can only say that the lady was already sitting in the wheelchair when I took her out to the shops. Then I took her to the hill where the Stations of the Cross are, but I cannot say if she was able to walk before I met her.”
“Okay, thank you,” said the man who had questioned me, and soon the small crowd of onlookers dispersed.
The following day I heard from the volunteers, whom I used to meet at lunchtime, of a miracle that had happened in Lourdes. I didn’t ask what kind of miracle they were talking about. It possibly referred to the lady that had regained her ability to walk. At the time I had fallen into my feelings of atheism, so I wasn’t interested in the subject.
Many years went by, and that episode seemed to have fallen into oblivion, but one day it came to mind for some reason. I wondered why that sick lady would have deceived me, pretending to have been miraculously cured when she was already in good health. What was the point?
That afternoon in Lourdes was still vivid in my mind. I relived seeing the lady dressed in black sitting in the wheelchair waiting for a volunteer. When I arrived at the hospital, as soon as I saw her I headed for her and grasped the handle of the wheelchair without uttering a word. Once we were in the street, I asked her where to go. Then we went shopping and then to the hill. At last I took her back to the hospital.
I decided that there had to be a rational explanation. Maybe the old lady was lazy and didn’t want to walk by herself. Perhaps she took advantage of me to stroll around Lourdes while sitting comfortably in the wheelchair. Nevertheless, my conjecture collided with the fact that the lady had been admitted to the hospital in Lourdes.
If my memory serves me right, there were two hospitals for sick people at that time in Lourdes, one bigger and one smaller. Neither of them admitted patients that were not disabled. There should be medical records certifying her disability. Being wise after the event, at that time I was very shallow. I should have investigated the matter in depth.
However, if she is still in my mind after so many years, perhaps something supernatural really did happen that afternoon in Lourdes.
This is an excerpt from A Hidden Sicilian History by ETTORE GRILLO
Ettore Grillo, author of these books:
– A Hidden Sicilian History
– The Vibrations of Words
– Travels of the Mind