Each year a group of pilgrims from our Diocese visit Lourdes. A nurse, Cath Jones, and a member of this year’s group, John Rigby, and one of the organisers, Alex Prior, share their experiences of Lourdes 2015.
Bishop Ralph was joined by around 450 other pilgrims when he led the Hallam Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes for the first time from Sunday, 28 June to Friday, 3 July. Throughout the week, pilgrims sheltered from the 35-40 degree heat by relaxing in the hotels and cafés, getting to know other pilgrims and youth helpers. The unexpectedly hot weather didn’t deter pilgrims from all corners of the Diocese from following the spiritual programme each day.
The majority of adult pilgrims flew on the specially chartered plane from Doncaster Airport at 8am Sunday morning. After the opportunity to settle into our hotels, the pilgrimage started with our Opening Mass. This included a sign of the act of service, when doctors, nurses, helpers, musicians, youth leaders and youth – all of whom volunteered to give their time and skills to help others on the pilgrimage – came forward to have their hands blessed.
Over 200 young people from high schools around the Diocese joined the pilgrimage and accompanied those pilgrims using wheelchairs. When asked, many pilgrims noted the involvement and example of these youth helpers as one of the highlights of their pilgrimage. Indeed, Bishop Ralph was congratulated all week by pilgrims from other countries on the interaction, attitude and behaviour of the young people from our Diocese.
Another highlight for many pilgrims was the Mass at the Grotto on Monday morning. This was celebrated by Bishop Ralph, with the 10 priests travelling on the pilgrimage concelebrating, at the spot where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette over 150 years ago. During this Mass one of our young pilgrims, 8-year-old Job McGuire, made his First Holy Communion. Later that day there was the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation at our Penitential Service.
On Tuesday morning we had our Mass with Anointing of the Sick. For many pilgrims this prayer of healing is a profoundly emotional moment, when pilgrims receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick surrounded by the young helpers accompanying them during the pilgrimage.
We joined large numbers from many other countries on Wednesday morning for the International Mass in the enormous St Pius X Underground Basilica. Bishop Ralph was one of 8 Bishops, and over 100 priests concelebrating the Mass, reflecting on the theme “Lourdes – The Joy of Mission”. With thousands present at this Mass, it was overwhelming to see the sea of yellow t-shirts representing our youth helpers, and seeing some of them bring up the gifts in the procession was particularly poignant.
Each day in Lourdes there was the opportunity to join the Blessed Sacrament Procession and Torchlight procession. As a Diocese, we joined together in the Torchlight Procession on Monday evening before again gathering on Wednesday afternoon in the Underground Basilica as Bishop Ralph presided at the Blessed Sacrament procession. In a very powerful moment, Bishop Ralph walked amongst us carrying the Blessed Sacrament, blessing pilgrims from Hallam and from all over the world.
Our last full day in Lourdes was Thursday, and that morning many pilgrims followed the Stations of the Cross on the prairie opposite the Grotto, with others following the “High Stations” on the Way of the Cross on the hillside. After our Thanksgiving Mass that afternoon, many of the youth departed on their coaches back to the Diocese. The next afternoon, most pilgrims flew back to Doncaster Airport and, whilst there was a slight delay with departure of the flight, everyone was home by early evening with shared memories of many wonderful experiences.
A Worthy Tribute to Mary
I think that if Our Blessed Lady had chosen to reappear at Lourdes during the week ending July 3rd she would have had a beaming smile on her face for all those who were part of the Hallam Diocesan Pilgrimage.
Around 240 pilgrims travelled either overland or by air and more than half of this number wore bright yellow tee shirts identifying them as helpers. The younger members were students from our secondary schools and they were so cheerful and helpful throughout the six days, and so careful when pushing the wheelchairs. They were all a great credit to their parents and teachers.
Bishop Ralph was accompanied by about twelve priests and a team of adult helpers, teachers, doctors and nurses. I cannot praise the organisers enough for their tremendous work in ensuring that everything ran smoothly. Pilgrims travelled in three separate groups so there were countless opportunities for logistical disasters, yet nothing had been overlooked.
We were awakened with amazing sunshine nearly every day and the first Mass was near the Grotto with a Blessing for the helpers. A large group of talented musicians from around the Diocese made all the Masses truly memorable.
Sitting quietly in the Domaine after Mass, one’s thoughts turned to St Bernadette and what she would have made of our world today. She was no stranger to poverty, her father being out of work, and the Cachot in which she lived was a hovel. Having survived a cholera epidemic she was left permanently asthmatic. This illustrates the empathy she shares with those enduring austerity, unemployment, homelessness and ill health.
The theme chosen this year was ‘Mission’ and during the Service of Reconciliation I heard two young people admit that they had not received this Sacrament since their first Holy Communion. I hope that their faith has been revived during the pilgrimage. Mass with Anointing of the Sick took place the next day which was the hottest, so helpers and nurses were extremely attentive, supplying water frequently.
After the International Mass in the St Pius X underground chapel I was wheeled to the Baths – an act of faith which I survived – and practised my O level French when thanking the brancards, only to find they were all from Ventimiglia!!
During the journey from the Grotto to our hotel we often stopped for ice cream or drinks with our helpers who were so interesting to listen to and gave us hope for a better world in the future. We frequently bumped into Bishop Ralph chatting to the students. Did he ever find a sun hat?
On the final day there was an Anglican Eucharist followed by the Stations of the Cross. The low Stations are relatively new and feature magnificent and very moving sculptures in white stone. After the Thanksgiving Mass it was time to pack for Friday’s return journey.
Although most pilgrims were physically tired on arrival home I hope that, like me, they also felt spiritually uplifted.
A Journey of Discovery
I am somewhat still a new Catholic having just reached my first anniversary of Confirmation this Easter.
My visit to Lourdes was a first. I attended in my nursing capacity but was also a pilgrim in my own right. If I was to share everything I would run out of words; as there is so much to talk about I will try to condense my visit.
We arrived on Sunday lunch time. Visiting the grotto and the torchlight procession was wonderful. The Service of Reconciliation was very moving, seeing all the yellow shirted Hallam youth in line to make confession, and experiencing the love that was present in the chapel for all those affected by this wonderful healing sacrament was simply amazing. The Anointing of the Sick was also very moving. Our young people standing with their hands on the shoulders of their pilgrims, demonstrating such care, was a spectacular sight. Fr Peter Kirkham gave a wonderful homily. He said we were brought to Lourdes by Our Lady, and he talked of healing being much more than miracle cures.
Another first for me was the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that evening. I had never taken part in such a service before. I shed tears and was once again very moved.
As a nurse I am now officially a member of the Lourdes Medical Association. So during the Blessed Sacrament Procession I had a reserved seat. I was honoured to be asked to follow Bishop Ralph, Fr Pat O’Connor and Mgr Desmond Sexton during this wonderful service, along with nursing representatives from Canada and Italy.
By Thursday I didn’t want to go home. Following the high Stations of the Cross, which are lifelike and lifesize, was like being a part of history; watching from the future as the events unfold.
Our final service of thanksgiving was very special not least as Bishop Ralph took his first selfie. Fr Desmond gave a very pertinent message about giving ourselves the compassion we give to others.
Lourdes is a place of faith, belief and discovery, filled with love and healing. Being part of this Hallam Pilgrimage was like being part of a family; despite only knowing people for a few days, these people touched my heart and my soul. I want to thank everyone who was part of my journey.
Here’s to next year.
The 2016 Hallam Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes will take place from Sunday, 26 June to Friday, 1 July, during the Holy Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis, following the theme “Merciful like the Father”. Booking forms will be available at the end of the year.
As an indication of cost the fare for 2015 was £625, including insurance, for 5 nights full board accommodation and flight direct to Lourdes from Doncaster Airport. If you would like to register early interest, please contact Fr Pat O’Connor, Pilgrimage Director on 01302 853937.
The Lourdes Reunion will take place on Friday, 13 November, 2015 at All Saints Catholic High School, Granville Road, Sheffield, S2 2RJ, starting with Mass at 7pm. All are welcome.