Pilgrimage to Lourdes: A Reflection

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In three weeks time I will take part in the diocese of Down & Connor’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.  This week forms one of the most important parts of my calendar.  Therefore I have decided to post the following reflection.  It was composed after last year’s pilgrimage and was posted on the diocese’s website.  After returning from Lourdes this year I have a few things to tidy up and will then embark on my next project which will be specifically focused on St Bernadette and Lourdes…some of the material contained in this reflection will hopefully be drawn out further in this project…but more on that later.

It is my hope that for anyone who reads this reflection and feels that they would like me to leave a prayer petition at the Grotto of Lourdes that you feel free to contact me/post a comment.  Even if you have your own memories of Lourdes and want to share them, please feel free.

God bless ya’ll! x

“Saint Bernadette Soubirous has been called by some the “most secretive of all the Saints.”  Throughout her childhood Bernadette had much to complain about; she suffered ill health all throughout her life, her father had been imprisoned on a charge of aggravated robbery and the family had been resigned to living in what was known as le cachot (roughly translated as the dungeon.) And yet throughout the suffering, ill health and accusations the child was never known to have made any complaint.  Even during the time of the visions Bernadette did not exalt herself as a great visionary.  She did not pray any more than the other children of her day.  Much like the Lady she could see in the grotto of Massabielle, Bernadette maintained her silence.  She had much to complain about and much to talk about.  There was even much to gossip about; not so for Bernadette Soubirous.  One could not help but be reminded of the beautiful example offered in the Gospel of Saint Luke:

“As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2: 19)

Perhaps this was the reason God had chosen Bernadette as the one who his message would be revealed to; because she was so like Our Lady.  Even in famous imagery of Saint Bernadette there appears to be a great silence.  Look at the following image of the child.Saint Bernadette  She gives little away in her expression.  There is a hint of a smile but little else.  To look at her one would not know there is anything special about her.  What is it going through her mind at these times?  What is she treasuring and pondering in her heart?  These are mysteries we may never know the answer to.  Regardless for over one hundred and fifty years now the town of Lourdes has become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Christendom.  The diocese of Down & Connor has been organizing pilgrimages to the shrine for little over thirty years now.  I have had the privilege of serving eleven years on the pilgrimage (five on the youth team and six on the Brancardiers.)  Every year’s pilgrimage is different.  At the time of writing I have just returned from Lourdes and have much to reflect on from this year.

The theme for this year’s pilgrimage was the Joy of Mission.  It seemed to tie in rather appropriately with Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation the Joy of the Gospel.  As I have written before, when I reflect on Lourdes and write about it I am reminded of the words of Saint Bernadette.  She was once asked for an explanation of the visions of Lourdes and their deeper theological meaning.  Her response was simple; “It is best for people to speak and write very simply. It is more moving to read the Passion than to have it explained.”  There must exist some place between silence and speaking; between contemplation and action.  I can only hope the reader will find some level of interest in what I have to say and while I cannot recount the experiences found in a full week’s pilgrimage I can offer a few examples of what makes this week of the year such an important part of my calendar.

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One of the key themes throughout the week concerned the joy of diversity.  This was reflected in the homilies I was able to engage with.  From Bishop Tony Farquhar’s homily during the opening Mass to Fr Darach Mac Giolla Cathain’s homily during the staff Mass and Bishop Noel Treanor’s homily at the Mass in the Grotto of Massabielle.  All three referred to the joy of how we who make this pilgrimage come from a variety of backgrounds.  Whether we are clergy, staff or pilgrim we all have a role to play in the pilgrimage.  But just like the little visionary we each hold some unknown secret which remains in our hearts; the reason we make the pilgrimage.  Whatever the case there are parts of each of our lives that are known only to us and God.  This is one of the things I love so much about Lourdes; that no matter what we are or what our story is the experience of the pilgrimage remains a blessed one.  When you meet someone in the streets of Lourdes you are happy to see them and when you leave you may conclude with a little “God bless.”  Normally at home to offer such a blessing may be considered ludicrous or even insulting and yet in Lourdes this is entirely acceptable.  I cannot explain it but I know the weeks I have spent in Lourdes are among the happiest of my life.

The second memory I take with me concerns new experiences.  This year I experienced the baths of Lourdes for the first time.  To experience the baths is a bit of a pilgrimage in itself and for me it was not an easy one.  There has always been a bit of a reticence and fear in me about going to the baths at Lourdes.  There is the walk to the place of the baths which is the easy bit.  This is followed by waiting in an almost ante-chamber with others until you are called forward.  While sitting in this chamber there was much going through my mind and as I waited there were times I considered “Maybe I could just get up and go and put this off until next year.”  Why was I afraid?  I had already done the penance bit of the message of Lourdes, so why did I have to go to the baths?  This period of waiting felt like an eternity.  But if we know the story of Lourdes we know that Our Lady never forced Bernadette to do anything.  So much so that on one occasion her face was sad, when she asked Bernadette would she get on her knees and kiss the ground out of penance for sinners, she followed by asking “if this would bother her.”  Bernadette was happy to answer the call.  Eventually my own time was called and I was invited through the curtain.  Standing in a chamber with maybe four others I was told what was going to happen.  I was invited to de-robe and have the towel wrapped around my waist.  The discretion and care of those involved in this process is one I cannot commend more highly.  I was turned to face the statue of Our Lady and stepped into the bath.  The volunteers prayed with me, and I was allowed time to pray my own private silent intentions.  This was no easy task.  I was shaking the whole time even though I didn’t notice the coldness of the water.  I was shaking and crying because I was sorry.  I was sorry for all the times I have failed God and his Mother.  I was shaking because it was so difficult for me to let go and entrust myself to another person who would submerge me in the water of Lourdes.  I cried because I knew that all too often in my life I have allowed myself to be part of the mediocrity of the world and not the glory of God.  But here I stood, naked and without shame before God and his Mother; like a newborn child ready to move from contemplation to action.  The submersion process was quick and gave a shock to my whole system.  Upon leaving the chamber I shook hands with the volunteer who had led the prayers.  When I looked into his eyes I saw a soul who knew what I had experienced: the spring is miraculous and comes from God.  If you are going to allow yourself to be touched by this miracle then there are consequences.  In my case I would have to make amends for the things I have done wrong, I would have to stop making those mistakes and I would have to allow myself to be the work of God.  This leads to the third point which was encompassed during the Grotto Mass: the joy of Mission.

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As I have said Bishop Treanor spoke so powerfully and passionately at the Grotto Mass about the miracle of Lourdes, the people who make the pilgrimage and the joy of mission.  It wasn’t hard for me to be convinced by his words!  Bishop Noel was keen to encourage all who took part in the pilgrimage to fully engage with the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy which will officially begin on the 8th December; the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  In doing so we see that the experience of Lourdes should not be resigned to one week of the year but rather the whole year long.  This is what Saint Bernadette understood.  Even after she left Lourdes to join the Sisters of Charity in Nevers what had happened during the apparitions followed her.  It isn’t difficult to see why she needed to maintain a degree of silence.

Towards the end of the Mass the choir sang beautifully as they always do.  I was contemplating the words of the hymn they were singing which were the following:

“We come before you with all we have; the work of our hands.  Broken and poured out, sign for the world, Jesus be with us now.”  It dawned on me that each of us is broken in one way or another.  We each have an innate need and desire for the love of God.  We all of us need his healing touch.  I am broken and I want to be complete.  When I stood there in the magnificent sunshine, praying in the place where Bernadette prayed looking at the place where Our Lady appeared and I received the Eucharist I treasured all these things and pondered them in my heart.  In that place which resides between contemplation and action I felt the healing touch of God and knew that all will be well.  Whatever is troubling you, whatever ailment torments you, bring it to the Blessed Mother and leave it at the foot of the Cross of Calvary, the place where she experienced the deepest sorrow possible.  Do this and He will know what to do with it.  As Saint Bernadette once said,

“Grow, Jesus, grow in my heart, in my spirit, my imagination, my senses, by your modesty, your purity, your humility, your zeal, your love.  Grow with your grace, your light, your peace.  Grow, despite my resistance, my pride.  Grow until you reach the fullness of human perfection.  Grow as you did at Nazareth before God and before men, for the glory of God.”

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