Even non-Catholics pray at the Indian shrine of Our Lady of Gunadala
by Benigna Menezes*

Yesterday, the diocese celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, marking the first apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette. PIME missionaries founded the diocese and brought a statue of the Virgin in 1928. Placed on a hill, the latter protects “the city and brings it closer to Jesus." The shrine drew 1.4 million faithful, including non-Christians.

Vijayawada (AsiaNews) – Celebrating his very first Mass at the Gunadala Matha Shrine as bishop of Vijayawada, Joseph Raja Rao Thelegathoti hailed the statue of Mary on the hill as the medium of Divine Grace for the city of Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh.

The service took place yesterday, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, who is very important for the diocese. The statue of "Our Lady of Lourdes that came to Vijayawada is the same one that blesses the city today as Our Lady of Gunadala Matha," Mgr Raja Rao said.

The bishop noted that missionaries from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) founded the Gunadala Matha shrine, and placed the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on top of the hill in 1928 "to protect the city and bring it closer to Jesus."

During his homily, he went on to explain the origin of the celebration, which dates back to the first appearance of the Virgin to little Bernadette in 1858.

The Virgin, the prelate said, “explained to Saint Bernadette how to obtain God’s mercy by reciting the Rosary and practicing penance to convert a sinful world that would otherwise be destroyed.”

Bishop Govindu Joji of Nalgonda, Bishop Emeritus Mathew Cheriankunnel (PIME), and about 200 priests concelebrated the Mass.

Celebrations were held over three days, from 9 to 11 February, preceded by a novena of prayers. Each day the faithful went in procession to the shrine on the hill, carrying lit candles.

"This year nearly 1.4 million people participated in the various events, reflecting the cross-cultural nature of the congregation,” said Shrine rector Fr Chinappa.

“A large chunk of the floating multitude are people of all faiths who came to find peace and connect themselves to God’s mother,” the rector noted.

“Following Indian devotional traditions, they offered flowers, and broke coconuts in front of the mother. People come to make or fulfil a vow, offer penance or seek a miracle.”

People lined up in the early hours of the morning, then started to ascend the hill. They stopped halfway to pray in front of the Grotto of Our Lady and then continued up to the top, to the cross.

“Along the uphill road, which takes nearly an hour of slow climbing, there is a tonsure station, where people have their heads shaved as a sign of their submission to the virgin,” the rector explained.

“The tonsure can serve as an act of penance, as a dedication for the protection of a child, or as a gift to give thanks for some great favour received”.

At the end of the Mass, Mgr Raja Rao invited the assembly to start a spiritual pilgrimage to draw closer to Mary, the universal mother who came to stay as Gunadala Matha at Vijayawada.

* Immaculate Missionary, women’s Congregation associated with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME)