While I was preparing this week’s Newsletter and inserting the notice about the 25th World Day of the Sick which takes place on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, I got to thinking about the different experiences I’ve had of being a pilgrim to Lourdes over the years.
On my first trip a lot of it passed me by. I was 18 and our curate in St. Laurence’s in Drumchapel had arranged to take a group of lads on a trip to France, spending a few days in Lourdes, and then heading over the mountains for a week’s camping in Lloret de Mar on the Costa Brava. It was the year I left St. Mungo’s Academy and, before I went on a serious job search, I took up work in a Catering Suppliers to get some money together for what would be my first trip abroad. The curate acquired an old van which he expertly turned into a minibus and off we went. We drove from Glasgow to Portsmouth and took the ferry from there to Le Havre. Our first stop was Rouen and its famous Notre Dame Cathedral, and from there it was about a 9-hour drive to Lourdes. It was amazing to see this place that I knew about from my Catholic upbringing and I thought it was beautiful but, as I said, most of it passed me by, and I best remember that trip for the three days I spent in the tent in Lloret de Mar with terrible sunburn, not having appreciated the sun was a bit stronger there than in Glasgow.
After joining the Passionists, in my final years as a student and in my early years as a priest, I was involved with a group called CASA (Caring and Sharing Association) and each year we would take groups of people with disabilities on pilgrimage to Lourdes, always staying in the Mediteranee Hotel, close to the shrine, on the banks of the River Gave. I would combine liturgical duties with being a carer for one of the pilgrims and in the year of my ordination, when I first went as a priest/carer, I was assigned to accompany a great lad with Downs Syndrome. He took his companionship with the priest very seriously and from about the third day onwards we had a ritual at meals where he would join his hands in prayer, bless himself, then raise his bread, as I would the host at Mass, before he ate it; he would then cover his water glass with his napkin as if it was the chalice, then remove the napkin and raise his glass, as I would the chalice at Mass, before he drank it. He did this with such a great reverence that it deeply touched the others at our table, and at the surrounding tables, and he probably gave me a better appreciation of the words “through the action of the priest”. If I could perform those actions at Mass, always with the same reverence, I would be doing well. Nothing about those trips passed me by, as on my first trip, because on these occasions I was in every moment involved with the most important people in Lourdes, and that is the sick, the disabled and the suffering.
In later years I would go on parish pilgrimages from Mount Argus and those were wonderful too, with very special people involved. I remember beautiful liturgies, the trips to the baths, the visits to the City of the Poor, the torchlight processions, and the times of quiet, prayerful stillness together at the Grotto, or on the prairie on the opposite side of the river from the Grotto, as well as those moments of deep emotion, sharing, laughter, tears, and all the elements that combine so uniquely to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes quite special. The last time I was there was in 2008, the 150th Jubilee Year of the Apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette, when we were invited to follow a special "Jubilee Path" by visiting the baptismal font where St. Bernadette was baptized, the abandoned jail where she and her impoverished family lived throughout the apparitions, the grotto where she saw the Blessed Virgin, and the chapel where St. Bernadette made her First Communion. At each of the stops we got a special sticker so that at the end we could show that as pilgrims we had followed the Jubilee Path.
It's amazing how many memories can be evoked just because I was typing up a notice. I am thankful for all of the wonderful people down through the years that made those pilgrimages such times of grace and blessing, and I will offer Mass very sincerely on 11th February, Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, for all the sick, disabled and suffering people. Here is Pope Francis’s prayer for that day:
Mary, our Mother, in Christ you welcome each of us as a son or daughter.
Sustain the trusting expectation of our hearts, succour us in our infirmities and sufferings,
and guide us to Christ, your Son and our brother.
Help us to entrust ourselves to the Father who accomplishes great things.