On Friday 30th September 2011, at 4.00 a.m., 33 very tired and bleary eyed pilgrims, most of whom were from our parish, made the rendezvous to begin a physical journey of over 1000 miles and a spiritual journey of a far greater distance. Most of us woke up when it was time to get on the ferry, but in truth the journey was a chance for pilgrims who were unfamiliar with each other to get to know each other better. For all of us it was a journey into the unexpected; some of us came expecting a great deal, others weren’t sure what to expect, whilst others were there for curiosity. At the end of the pilgrimage we all agreed that we had received more than we could have hoped for.    

Why do people go to Lourdes?  What sight confronts a person when they first go toLourdes?       

Since 1858 millions upon millions of pilgrims, mostly Catholic, but some non-Catholic and non-Christian, have answered the call of Our Lady to come in prayer, to drink and bathe in the waters, and to be healed and reconciled to God and one another.

However, in 1858 the town of Lourdes was a provincial backwater that few had ever heard of, and in this insignificant town lived a simple girl called Bernadette Soubirous. She was a girl who had a profound love for God.  Circumstances had, however, led to her being behind in her education and she was forced to make her First Holy Communion with children much younger than herself.  She was considered in her town to be a “nobody”.
One day, whilst out collecting firewood with some other children, she found herself alone in a cave by a river which she couldn’t cross because of her fragile health; here she saw a beautiful light at the heart of which there was, in her words: “A beautiful lady”.  This lady held a rosary in her hands and invited Bernadette to pray with her.     

To begin with nobody believed Bernadette, but eventually after much trial Bernadette began to be believed.  There were two particular moments that confirmed the truth of Our Lady’s apparition.  The first was the miraculous spring that Bernadette uncovered from thground, which soon caused miracles of physical healing, and the second was the name that Our Lady revealed to Bernadette when she said of herself: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.  This wasstatement that Bernadette was too simple to understand or even invent. This is an example of great things being revealed to mere children. It is also the reason why Our Lady always reveals herself to the simple and humble of heart. 

Before the apparition the cave where Our Lady appeared was effectively the municipal rubbish tip;  it was a place where the refuse from the local hospital was dumped and burned. This place of squalor has become a place of healing for many people. 

To date, the church has pronounced on 67 certified miracles, however millions upon millions of people find a peace at Lourdes that they cannot find anywhere else. In this spot, the Mother of God came to remind us of God’s love for all his children and of his desire that we live close to him in this world so that we can be forever happy with him in the next. 

What did we do in Lourdes? 

We arrived on Saturday night after a 12-hour coach trip from Paris.  We first had supper, and later we celebrated our first mass in Lourdes. We should have had mass early in the morning, however there was some confusion over the venue as Father assumed that everyone was coming to his room! 

On Sunday we had a quiet morning, which began with mass in St Joseph’s chapel where the acoustics were fantastic and the parish choir excelled themselves. Then we had a tour of the domain given by our excellent tour guide for the week, Richard McLoughlin, who is Kath Brown’s cousin. He is training to be a permanent Deacon and he has been to Lourdes close on 17 times.  Red and white are his favourite colours!

On Monday we celebrated Mass at the beautiful Ukranian Catholic Church, which is visible on the Lourdes skyline because of its golden domes.  The Ukranian Catholics are part of the Eastern Catholic Church that recognises the authority of the Pope , whilst at the same time maintaining its own traditions such as its formof Mass and its married clergy.  Fr Peter welcomed us, as did the three parish sisters who sang a beautiful Ukrainian chant for us. 

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In the afternoon we went to the hospital where St Bernadette made her First HolyCommunion. This was a really beautiful place that was very simple and set the scene of the life Bernadette was to follow. In the evening there was a reconciliation service in the hotel chapel, led by Fr Andrew.

On Tuesday we rose early (even Fr Andrew did this time!!) and we joined other English speaking- pilgrims for an English language Mass at the Grotto.  The celebrant was from the diocese of Kilaloe, and the final blessing was given in Gaelic.

After Mass we all boarded the coach for a trip to Gavarnie.  The views were stunning and our wonderful coach drivers showed their expertise by negotiating some hairy bends.  Gavarnie is a most beautiful village in the Pyrenees close to the Spanish border, and two of our pilgrims who couldn't resist the lure of the castanets walked to Spain!!  Gavarnie is also a place where people can hire donkeys and horses to travel the lovely routes; indeed two more of our brave pilgrims hired horses.

Watch out in Martock for a man on horseback selling fruit and veg who answers to the name of John! 

After Gavarnie, later that evening, we attended the procession of the Blessed Sacrament and the blessing of the sick in the underground Basilica.  We also saw ourselves on the big TV screen. 

On Wednesday morning the early risers went to the Ukrainian Church with Fr Andrew, who was concelebrating Mass in the Ukrainian rite there.  Afterwards, a number of us used this time to meet one of Our Lady’s requests and bathe in the baths.  On a personal note, after having bathed three times before, every time one bathes in the water of the spring one has the feeling of leaving one’s burdens and worries in the hands of Our Lady.  People always comment that after having bathed they dry very quickly. In the afternoon, our gallant coach drivers took us to Bartres where a Healing Mass was celebrated at Hosanna House. After intercessory prayer we visited the home of St Bernadette’s foster Mother, had intercessory prayer, and this was followed by a visit to the Church of Bartres, where a nun was singing beautifully.  This made a great impression on a number of people, including the non-Catholic pilgrims. 

Our last full day in Lourdes was Thursday and we celebrated the Stations of the Cross in the morning. There were three distinct groups: the first were the lowlanders who wouldn’t have found the main Stations easy on account of the steepness of the hill.  They were led by Pat Russell and prayed at the Stations on the prairie. The second  group was led by Richard, who shared some beautiful meditations, and they were able to take their time. The third group did the main Stations, but had to be slightly quicker.  After lunch the group went to the City of the Poor, which is a beautiful place and was set up by a French priest, who built it so that especially poor people could have access to Lourdes, since the poor are God’s special ones.  We celebrated the Holy Mass in the Barn Chapel in the City of the Poor.  After supper we blessed the special candle that we had brought, on which were inscribed the names of all the pilgrims and coach drivers.  By extension, the large candle that we left burning was representing not only our prayers but also the intercessions of our parish and all of our loved ones.  We then joined the candlelit procession for the last time, which comprised of about 10,000 pilgrims who were there for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  We left Lourdes under her protection after saying three Hail Mary’s at her crowned statue.

The following morning we left Lourdes very early after having celebrated Mass at the breakfast table. We arrived at Nevers in the evening about 12 hours later.  We stayed at the Convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of Nevers where St Bernadette lived her life as a nun.  Her body, which lies in the chapel, has never corrupted in spite of being exhumed and re- interred three times!  We were able to see the room of the Infirmary where St Bernadette died.

On Saturday morning we finished our week long spiritual journey with a beautiful Mass and prayers before the tomb of St Bernadette.  We then ended by giving each other the sign of peace.  We left in high spirits, and made good time on the road.  Everything seemed perfect until two people thought that their passports had been left back at the hotel!  They both concluded that they would have to return to Lourdes to pick them up, however St Anthony was at work and the passports were found. Indeed one of them was found on the coach driver’s seat!  He was of course the victim of a stitch up between Fr Andrew and Paul, the coach driver.

Overall, if you want to know more about this pilgrimage just ask one of the lucky pilgrims.