Lourdes Pilgrimage 2006 – “First Impressions”

As a relatively new member of the Order of Malta, I have attended as many functions of the Order as possible and have spoken with as many members to get a feel for the Order, the expectations of its members, the scope of the work accomplished in Canada, and potential opportunities where one could make a difference. It probably comes as no surprise that one of the activities I had heard about, with some enthusiasm, is the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. The Quail family shared many different perspectives and experiences, and planted the seed. Early this year, I got the inexplicable feeling that “I had to go”. I didn’t know why, only that it was something that must be done.

Putting my trust in those who have gone before, I sent in notice to the British Association that I was interested in attending and being a helper in their program, and asked the Canadian Association Chancellor to book me and just tell me where I was going, staying etc. Despite my many unanswered questions and trepidations that this would all go off without a hitch, I managed to arrive in Lourdes via Paris and Pau on Thursday evening April 27th. Knowing that the British contingent wasn’t arriving until Friday night and having had advance notice of the schedule for the American Association, I changed into my “uniform” and proceeded to the opening mass for the 3 contingents from the USA. It was held in what was referred to as the Rosary Basilica. Absolutely mind boggling! The visual of a very full church (approx. 1,000 members and malades, although I had trouble estimating participant numbers – a recurring theme all week due to the overwhelming size of the crowds) actively participating in mass was truly a memorable moment. As I walked back to my hotel later that first evening for a much needed sleep, it hit me – the main section of the town that I would pass through many times per day was nothing but hotels and gift shops. I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but it certainly wasn’t this! The next morning as I made my way, along the same path, to the Grotto area of Lourdes and to the Accueil Notre-Dame, the hospital type building where I would be spending countless hours, it became evident how big a contradiction this once sleepy little town had become. On one hand the commercialization of thousands of hotel rooms (second largest concentration in France) and souvenir stores, and on the other hand the majesty of two basilicas, the mystery of the Grotto, and the beauty of the surrounding Pyrenees mountains. Passing through the very large crowds multiple times during the day, as I walked with malades or on my way to and from duty, it became very clear that this was a place of deep faith. On the Saturday evening as I ventured to the medal presentation ceremony for first time volunteers, to be attended by the Grand Master, I had to wiggle through the crowds that assembled for the candlelight procession. The main square was packed; the lines along the river Gave were unending, and the atmosphere was electric. The daily scene of thousands of people, young and old, well and sick, walking and in wheel chairs spoke volumes of the spiritual nature of this place. I had the fortune of spending the first two days with the Knights from the American Association and then the balance of my week with those comprising the British Association. The main difference was that the British provided a hospital ward type setting with care available 24/7 for their malades. Parents or spouses who attended were afforded a much needed break from care-giving and allowed to “play tourist” while the helpers tended to their loved ones. The British were divided into 4 teams and shifts varied daily so that the distribution of work was equally dispersed. Two shifts per day could involve getting folks up, showered, shaved, dressed, or cleaning-up in the ward and dining room, or preparations for bed, and as I quickly found, not being on duty didn’t mean not having something to do. The days were quite full with activities that comprised the Lourdes experience. Daily mass, stations of the cross, the rosary, the baths, touring some of the areas of significance and all along ensuring the malades were well taken care of. The hours of 7am – 11pm became quite common and even in a short week (which seemed anything but short) bonds developed with both helpers and those on their personal missions of healing and hope. Good conversations and smiles were the order of the day and a break from the routines at home for those who suffered a variety of inflictions. Sunday’s international mass was held in the underground Basilica. I have never seen anything this large above ground or below. Big ramps led to a football shaped place of worship. I was told that without wheelchairs, the Basilica could hold up to 40,000 people. Mass was said in Latin with the help of approximately 200 priests. I tried to count the number of Chalices that were brought to the altar by children but lost count as I mused how on earth they would distribute communion to so many. Clearly, they had done this before. Priests lined each aisle at 10ft intervals and managed to “feed the masses” in not much more time than a normal communion at a big church. For the almost 6,000 attendees associated with the Order of Malta, Tuesday evening was reserved for the torch light procession. I cannot describe the feelings as I watched from a perspective of the middle of the parade formation which was organized 4 across, as far as I could see forward and back, processing, candles in hand, to the sound of the saying of the rosary. Visitors lined the route and the winding paths that led to the Basilica. In between decks of the rosary, the ‘Ave Marie’ was sung and in each instance as the words rang out, all candles were raised high into the air in unison. Chills ran up my spine and I was overcome with emotion, not being able to sing the words myself. It is something I will never forget. As a matter of fact, there are many things that I will not forget. The hard work, the appreciation of the malades, the relationships begun, the resounding gift of faith evident in Lourdes. All in all, a very tiring week and I was happy to come home, but at the same time, very worthwhile – one that reinforced faith, hope, spirituality and humility. It was truly a humbling experience. People from all walks of life, CEOs, entrepreneurs, professionals, non-members, all wearing the same uniform and sharing the same purpose and duty of care was heart warming. To me it spoke much about the personal character of those who make the journey annually and work tirelessly with selfless purpose. Our Lady’s message is alive and thriving, and the experience not only makes a lasting memory but also makes an indelible impression in the heart.