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Pilgrimage Reflections

Lourdes 2017

I am a disabled pilgrim who receives outreach. I was only supposed to visit Lourdes once, in 2013, just to find out what it was like.  Since then I’ve been on pilgrimage with the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle four times, and I keep coming back.  It’s simply a beautiful experience and I can’t wait to go there as often as possible.

I was fairly stressed out arriving at Newcastle Airport on 28.7.17, 7.30 am via taxi. Just getting my luggage and manual wheelchair out of my front door had been a monumental effort for me.

The second I met other pilgrims at the airport my mind started to calm. One of the young helpers immediately dealt with my luggage, wheeled me expertly through the airport and put me at ease by greeting me like an old friend and being as helpful as possible.

The young helpers in general amaze me. They appear ever cheerful, competent and accommodating. They show a maturity well beyond their years. It fills me with hope to see so many young people share my faith and give generously of their spare time helping others to enjoy their pilgrimage, many of whom would be unable to travel without their help.

The young people always show their best side to the sick and disabled, helping without being intrusive and generously offering their friendship and young outlook. I remember fondly the Bollywood night at the Alba led by the young people of Indian Origin. They applied artistic henna tattoos to pilgrims and gave a Bollywood performance. I was in the adjoining hotel and watched their antics from my balcony. Sadly, after a busy day I was too tired to take part. One of my friends, a lady staying at the Accueil, proudly showed me her beautiful hennaed hands the next day, telling me how much fun they had had with the young helpers the night before.

Lourdes is a very beautiful, holy place. Anyone who has faith is deeply touched by it.  Even some of my friends who don’t believe in God enjoy my photos and tales of my pilgrimage. They are happy to accept my prayers and candles ‘ just in case there is something to it’.  I am grateful for my faith. It is a gift from God and I always ask the Virgin Mary to help others find faith.

I loved the Opening Mass on 29.7.17 which was very moving.  I also loved meeting friends from previous pilgrimages and enjoyed making plans to meet up and catch up. I reflected about the motto, about all that God has done for us.  I am glad He brought me to Lourdes and that I made so many good friends here and continue to make new ones. Lourdes always recharges my soul and deepens my faith.

It seems as if people in Lourdes behave as they should, loving their neighbour. Everyone is friendly and helpful. It is easy to make friends, start conversations and spend time with good people. We Christians and certainly Catholics are few and far between. I find true comfort and strength in seeing so many people share my faith.  I like our priests who come on pilgrimage. They work hard on making the services special. They are friendly, open and kind. This year a newly ordained priest came with us. I had prayed for him since I met him in 2013. I was so happy that he had become a priest. He even gave me a prayer card he had printed.  I really cherish it.

I also like the fact that so many people are keen to help; for example, I always find people who fill my bottles with Lourdes water or check on me when I look unwell -and not just people from my pilgrimage. It’s really rare to meet someone who stares r is rude in Lourdes.

It is a real comfort that I can always ask anybody from my group for assistance should I need it. I am very independent and try to look after myself as much as possible.  Nevertheless, there are limits as to what I am capable of. Without the given support I would not be able to travel by myself.

There were numerous beautiful and moving services this year. Our Lourdes Pilgrimage has a very good choir and talented young musicians. We sang selected hymns with them and our own ‘amen’, which everybody sings who has been to Lourdes before

I miss this music all year round and look forward to hearing it in Lourdes.  I went to numerous services in the majestic Underground Basilica. It’s made for 25,000 people and is simply breath taking. The religious art displayed and the music are the finest the church has to offer. You can feel the power of God, the strength of faith coming from all these worshippers.

As previously I love to linger after the service admiring the magnificent art. I also spent time with the huge pictures of the saints framing the seating area. I find comfort in knowing that so many brave and holy souls have made Christ the centre of their lives. There are so many saints I’m not familiar with. Sometimes I note their names and look them up. Their faith and ultimate trust in God fills me with awe.

I really enjoyed the moving Stations of the Cross. I attended the one for disabled pilgrims at the Prairie, as it is flat and easily accessible. So many severely disabled people were there with their helpers. I felt happy and grateful that we were all able to take part in these services despite our disabilities. I am sure many of my disabled friends won’t find it easy to be part of things in their usual daily lives.

Bishop Seamus reminded us during this pilgrimage that the sick and suffering are very close to Jesus. I found this very comforting.

My favourite service was probably the Sunday Mass at the grotto. It was rescheduled to the earlier time of 8.30 am, which was a bit of a chore for a disabled person. I simply take so much time to get ready in the morning. Nevertheless, I was not disappointed.

It was a beautiful service with our bishop and priests right in the grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. You can feel that it is a truly holy place. I found it very moving to be outdoors, right in front of where our Lady of Lourdes appeared. Our bishop and priests in their beautiful vestments celebrated the Mass from inside the grotto.  The choir was singing beautifully and it was the beginning of a warm summer’s day.  I have always felt the closeness of God in nature. As I looked up into the sky I saw the swifts in acrobatic flight hunting insects. Their shrieking somehow became part of the music and I felt very close to God in that moment.

I enjoyed making time for lighting candles and personal prayer afterwards. Due to my health issues I am prone to fatigue and I get sick easily when tired. It is very tempting to go to every service, every event on the calendar, just out of fear of losing out. I had to reduce my schedule several times this year to rest. I have learnt that a pilgrimage is not like sightseeing; you concentrate on what you can achieve and enjoy it.

Another favourite part of Lourdes 2017 was the torch-lit Marian Procession. I loved following the exquisite statue of our Lady of Lourdes around the Sanctuary grounds praying the rosary. We all lit candles, singing the ‘Ave Maria’ together in a large crowd.

We raised our candles up to heaven with every ‘Ave Maria ‘. I have never been to a more moving procession than the one in Lourdes. I have attended many by now, but it never loses its magic. I enjoy being part of the huge crowd and I feel their strength of faith.  I feel lifted and leave for my hotel tired but happy and fulfilled.

The last days again are spent with friends, with religious services and personal prayer. I love the Closing Ceremony in the Underground Basilica. It has been an especially nice pilgrimage. We all enjoy singing and hearing our Lourdes music one more time. There is also a tinge of sadness that the pilgrimage is coming to an end.

As always the return home is well supported by an army of helpers. I was very pleased with my choice of hotel this year. The staff were very kind and attentive. They took my luggage downstairs and waved me off when the bus drove away for the airport!

After the flight all disabled people were helped off the plane. This takes a while due to the numbers. I got very tired and became impatient as I was unable to rest. I started swearing under my breath, as I was in pain and struggled to keep going.  My helper kindly took me from plane to luggage to exit. He even put me into my taxi! I regretted my earlier frustration. It was nobody’s fault that my wheelchair was late and that so many people need help. I will have to work on my temper again – nothing new there!

All in all I had a great time. Everything was beautiful, the weather, the Sanctuaries, the services, the friends, the feeling of community.

After sad goodbyes with friends I went home exhausted, but happy. I feel that I also had a holiday with God.  I was reminded that life is a spiritual journey first and foremost. Something you can easily forget when you are struggling with daily life.

My soul felt refreshed. On the way home I was already thinking of going next year again. God willing, I shall see you all then!

Written by a disabled pilgrim using the outreach service in 2017