My Grandmother had been a widow for many years and when she came to live with her daughter and son-in-law, after they moved in the early 1950s into a council house on one of the great overspill estates constructed to free people from the slums, had become friendly with the other widows in the parish. There were two sorts: the first comprised wives whose husbands had died young, whether killed by Germans or Japanese, or by industrial accidents in those pre-Health and Safety-conscious days, or by illness in days when far more people died from things that are now curable or because of things like pollution or heavy smoking which belong to the past. The second group was of spinsters of her age: the women who had never had the chance to marry and become mothers, because so many of the young men of their age whom they might have married had gone to sea, or to France, or Turkey, or Italy, or wherever, between 1914 and 1918 and hadn't come back.
As we got to the 1960s, a group of these ladies, by then in their 70s began to come to our house every year for their Christmas dinner. They simply couldn't be left on their own, and were parcelled in groups around various families where they were welcomed as we might have hoped to have been able to welcome the Holy Family, had we had a room in Bethlehem: "why put a candle in the window on Christmas Eve if you aren't prepared to give someone a dinner on Christmas Day?" my Grandmother would ask. "Why indeed" my mother, who would cook and clear up would answer, if only to herself. But they were always welcomed.
These ladies were all of a type. They had all been brought up in the same way: they were the daughters of labourers in the factories of late nineteenth century Manchester, had received such limited education as the state was prepared to enforce, had left school in the main at the age of 12 or 13 to go to work either in the factories or in service. They had worked all their lives until when they were 60 a grateful state had told them to stop working and had given them a small pension.
They were all practising Catholics: not just Mass on Sundays, but Novena and Benediction on Thursdays; and First Fridays, and Adoration when there was Adoration; and processions, and Confraternities. Confession was on Saturday: either weekly or fortnightly, but regular as clockwork. The Rosary was daily: at least once daily. The Rosary could be said alone or in a group.
When I knew them they were old: in their seventies they no longer had to keep up any appearances other than those they chose to. Their clothes were shabby, because they were never going to spend large amounts of cash on clothes that might not see them out; they tended towards the unembarrassedly flatulent; they liked rum, and whiskey: rum and pep, whiskey and dry ginger; and tea, sweet tea in beakers.
They had just enough to live on but they saved out of the little they had. They saved for two things: first, for their funerals, and for Masses to be said for them after their deaths. Second, for Lourdes.
If you read the popular histories of travel, you will find that overseas travel began in the UK in the 1960s, and that by the end of that decade the package holiday to the Mediterranean had become the norm for the British, but if you look at working class Catholics in Manchester, you will find that from the 1950s the package pilgrimage to Lourdes had already become established. They flew from Ringway, a converted RAF base in the south of Manchester in converted ex-military aircraft, sucked boiled sweets to cope with the lack of pressurisation, suffered institutionalised French mass catering (foreign food can sometimes really be muck), endured (and offered up) sleeping conditions which would have led an army to mutiny; but Lourdes was theirs. Few of them could afford to go every year, but every second year or third year was enough.
Why Lourdes? Why not Fatima? Why not Rome? I've no idea, but I might guess that the idea of Our Lady appearing to a poor, not very clever, girl, who lived in poverty in a family where the father wasn't particularly bright, and everybody looked down on them because they had few brains and less money might have rung a few bells.
It was the girl She appeared to, too. Her Son knew how bad they were; She could tell Him how good they could be if He would help them.
That, the Communion of the Saints, and the fact that the priest turned bread and wine into God's Body and Blood were pretty well all the theology they knew. You never argued with a priest and were blessed literally and metaphorically when he visited you. When, every few years, the Bishop came you knelt to kiss the ring which said that he was truly in the line of succession of the Apostles, and, when you were really old, there was somebody to help you kneel, and get up afterwards. There was a Pope in Rome: some of the men who had been in the Army had seen him in 1944; but he was a long way away and while you prayed for him, you could leave it to the Bishop to worry about what he was up to.
All of these women have been gathered to God, and we who are left are privileged to have known them. They understood more than I do, and believed more profoundly than me.
Pray for them at Christmas, and let's pray that we might attain their faith.