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By David Briggs
c. 2008 Religion News Service

EUCLID, Ohio — Hundreds of worshippers pack every seat in the chapel of the National Shrine and Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
As the rosary is recited, some kneel in front of a statue of Mary in a side alcove. Others stand in back, rosary beads clasped in their fingers, concentrating on the rhythm of the Hail Marys they recite in sets of 10.
Many have been here every night recently as part of a nine-day period of prayer and worship celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to a young shepherdess in France. It is an event so significant that Pope Benedict XVI has issued a plenary indulgence — commonly understood as a way to reduce time in purgatory before a person enters heaven — for all who observe the anniversary.
What the packed chapel also marks is part of a larger comeback of personal devotions, an attachment to novenas, rosaries and apparitions, and other expressions of spirituality prevalent in the Catholic Church before the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Daniel and Arlene Sevic of St. Leo Church in Cleveland were struck on their first visit to the shrine by its “understated” beauty and peaceful atmosphere.
“You bring to it what you have in your heart. It’s there to help you see something special,” Daniel Sevic said. His wife added that she thinks the church should encourage more devotions to Mary: “You need a little extra.”
The shrine, dedicated in 1926, is similar to the famous Lourdes Shrine in France where 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, later to become St. Bernadette, first saw an apparition of Mary on Feb. 11, 1858. The girl would see 17 more visions of Mary in the following weeks, including one unveiling a fountain that continues to attracts pilgrims from all over the world for what they believe is the healing power of the water of Lourdes.
At the Euclid shrine, a hillside statue of Bernadette looks up at a statue of Mary. Beneath Mary is a fountain where water in the warmer months pours over a stone hewn from a rock at the site where the apparitions took place. City water goes over the stone, but it is thought to have a mystical connection to Mary and her appearance at Lourdes.
Unlike the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, another popular pilgrimage site for people seeking spiritual and physical healing, the apparitions at Lourdes have been approved by the church. Benedict granted a plenary indulgence to those who participate in the 150th anniversary celebration, which runs through July 16.
The opportunity “to get to heaven quicker,” as one recent pilgrim to the Euclid shrine put it, is a motivating factor for many of those observing the anniversary here.
In a culture searching for more personal experiences of religion, places like the shrine that encourage practices such as the lighting of candles, rosaries and private prayer are becoming more popular, observers say.
The Rev. Johann Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, said the return to more tactile, more individual expressions of faith is part of the “renewal and resurgence of the religious sentiment in general.”
Visitors to the Euclid shrine said it gives them a sense of peace.
Uda Varricchio of Wickliffe, Ohio, said she comes regularly to light candles and say prayers and to keep up her supply of water from the shrine. She even puts it in her own water at home.
“You feel the love. … You feel it in your heart and in your soul,” she said. “It’s a very warm feeling. It’s special.”
There also is a sense of hope — a desire to be healed from cancer, blindness or other infirmities. One section of the shrine showcases discarded crutches, braces and canes and testimonies from people who claim they were healed after praying at the shrine.
And part is a desire that if their illness is incurable, they will find the grace to accept their future.
“We’ve never proclaimed any miracles,” said Sister Rochelle Guertal, shrine administrator. “We’ve just said we’ve had graces.”
Some of the most “graced moments” she has observed occur when cancer patients at local hospitals visit the shrine after their diagnosis and find an inner peace.
“We’ve had a lot of what I call interior cures,” she said.
“Sometimes, that’s the biggest grace.”
Stu Foster was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, and he still is in danger. What he has cast out after spending time with Mary at the shrine is fear, said Foster, of North Olmsted, Ohio.
“It’s a place where I can reflect and talk and express my feelings to her. And being a mother, I know she understands,” he said. “My faith has grown stronger. I’m not afraid of the disease anymore.”
(David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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