The Catholic Church in France is often referred to as the “eldest daughter of the Church”, as its Catholic roots run deep throughout the country and its history. We witness this in the numerous miracles, apparitions, and Saints that France has brought forth over the centuries. You can discover all this through the churches, shrines and Marian apparition sites that adorn the cities of France. As Lourdes is particularly close to my heart, I shall begin there.
Seeing God at work
If you travel to Lourdes anytime between March and November and stand at the top of the Basilica in the evening, you are likely to see hundreds of pilgrims in procession, praying to Our Lady, united together in singing to her with a resounding ‘Ave’. It is an awe-inspiring image to see; no words can describe the impression Lourdes has on its visitors. However, Yvonne McIntosh came close when she said “explaining what Lourdes is really like is like trying to describe the beauty of a sunset to a blind man!”
To truly experience Lourdes is to experience the love of Christ. Seeing the volunteers serve the disabled is to see Him at work in them. Hundreds of helpers travel to Lourdes all year round to aid the sick and can usually be noticed by the fluorescent vests that they wear, or the numbers painted on their t-shirts and faces! It is a beautiful way to serve in your diocese whilst also finding fulfilment in your own life.
A haven from everyday life
It is not uncommon to be distracted by the many shops paving the way to the Grotto in Lourdes. However, once you arrive within its gates, you are sure to encounter people from all walks of life, who gather with a single purpose: to pray silently and lovingly together. They pray for themselves and their loved ones and often ask for spiritual and physical healing.
In the midst of all the hustle and bustle of Lourdes, the Grotto provides a haven from the struggles of everyday life; it provides a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity. The Way of the Cross of the Espelugues, on the hillside, is an experience not to be missed. Since Lourdes is a very special place for the sick, there is also a Way of the Cross for those physically unable to climb the hill, still retaining the beauty of the landscape in both a physical and spiritual way.
Offering service in selfless love
One of the most powerful experiences I had in Lourdes was when I volunteered with the HCPT Pilgrimage Trust during the Easter of 2010. With the help of another volunteer, I cared for a young disabled lady for the week. I was enthusiastic to be helping her, but towards the end of the week, my patience had worn thin due to the heat, lack of sleep, and dealing with the frustrations that the young lady I was caring for had.
The Thursday of Easter week arrived, and our group went to a mass in the ‘Underground Basilica’. As I entered, I was greeted by the sounds and sight of some 5,000 volunteers and pilgrims gathering together to celebrate the Eucharist. With the weight of the week having taken its toll on me, I was eager to find a place to rest throughout the mass.
During the Gospel, as I looked around at the other volunteers and children, the words of Christ “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4) came to mind. I could see these words clearly manifest in every pilgrim I encountered. The overwhelming sense of selfless love that each of the volunteers gave to the children they were caring for illuminated my life at that moment and transformed my spirit of service. At the end of the Eucharist, with a renewed sense of joy, I wheeled the young lady home – this time, not because I was supposed to, but because I really wanted to.
Lourdes is a beautiful place to find sanctuary, to help others and, of course, to pilgrimage. It can be said of Lourdes that there is a ‘before and after’ aspect to each person’s encounter with this special place. Whether going with family on holiday, as a volunteer with your diocese, or indeed as a pilgrim on your own, the experience of Lourdes will gently leave its mark on you in some way, forever.