On June 29th, I woke up at 4am to make my way to Buchanan Bus Station to join a group of people I hardly knew on a 30-hour bus journey to a place I’d never been to before. However, by the end of the journey everybody knew each other, and by the end of the pilgrimage everybody had become lifelong friends.
I travelled with the charity Across as a helper in Group 3359. I was the youngest member of our group, but not the only first-timer. Our group was smaller than the usual size, since unfortunately some members had to drop out at the last minute, so there were only 20 of us. We had 5 VIPs with us, as well as some helpers and medical professionals, and of course our chaplain. I had met some of our group before but the majority of them I met for the first time during the journey.
A 30-hour bus journey is not something people look forward to, but on the Jumbulance it is so much more bearable. Across travel in specially modified coaches known as Jumbulances, which are equipped with hospital beds, bunk beds, and kitchen and toilet facilities. We were especially lucky since we travelled in “Our Lady of Lourdes”, which is the brand-new Jumbulance which just went into service this year. The Jumbulance really makes it easy to get to know your group, since you are constantly up and down taking food orders or bringing drinks to people, and you never sit next to the same person for the entire journey, which means you’ve spoken to everyone by the time you get there. We travelled down on a Holiday of Obligation, so we had Mass whilst we were on the Eurotunnel train. Having a smaller group was quite beneficial at night since we had more space, meaning it was a lot easier to get to sleep.
We arrived in Lourdes mid-afternoon on the 30th, and after we had lunch and settled in we went to the hotel’s chapel for our first Mass in Lourdes. That night the whole group headed down to the Domain for our first visit to the Grotto of the pilgrimage. The Grotto was so peaceful, and the atmosphere of the Domain was beautiful. The next day, I went with a small group to the High Stations, which was a challenge but I really enjoyed it. That afternoon we faced torrential rain to go and have Mass in La Rotonde near the Grotto. We were due to take part in the Blessed Sacrament procession but the weather was too bad for us to go ahead. We went back to the hotel and had night prayer instead, followed by an impromptu music session in the hotel bar. The following day the weather picked up and I explored Lourdes in the morning, taking the tourist train with some of the others. In the afternoon, we went to Maison Bellevue, the Polish Convent, to have Mass and celebrate our chaplain Fr Gerry Chromy’s 41st Anniversary of Ordination. That night we took part in our first Torchlight Procession, which was an amazing experience. Myself and Jonjo, the other young helper in our group were able to go up on the stage and represent our group, which made the experience even more memorable.
On the 3rd we had our group photo taken opposite the Grotto, and then did the Low Stations as a group. I visited the Rosary Chapel with Eleanor (who was one of the helpers) and Geraldine (who was a VIP), and we then visited some of the shops. That evening we had a group quiz night, and some of us performed a “Sound of Music in Three Minutes” comedy sketch for the rest of the group. The next day we visited St Savin, and had Mass in a beautiful church. We then went to Pont D’Espangne to have lunch and admire the view. Some of us had brought our instruments with us and we had another session at the cafe. The next day was Wednesday and so we went to the International Mass in the Underground Basilica. Once again myself and Jonjo had the opportunity to represent the group when all the banners were taken in before the Mass. The Mass was lovely and surprisingly easy to follow despite being mostly in French. We went to one of the cafes after Mass and spent the afternoon at the hotel, since it was around 40°C and it was too hot to stay out. A group of us went down to Confession in the Domain before we went to the Blessed Sacrament procession that afternoon, which had been moved into the Underground Basilica due to the heat. The procession was beautiful and was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage for me.
The next day we had our last outing, which was to the La Solitude convent of the Sisters of Sion in Bartrès. We had Mass there before heading back to Lourdes, where we spent the afternoon collecting water and visiting the shops for the last time before we left. That evening we lit our group candle (which had somehow managed to snap in two, but which with some hard work, and copious amounts of medical tape, we were able to save). Geraldine, one of our VIPs, read out a beautiful Candle Prayer, and we said a decade of the rosary together before visiting the Grotto one last time. On the final day, we gathered across from the Grotto to say a final rosary, then went over to the Crowned Virgin statue to say the traditional 3 Hail Marys. We had our final Mass in Chapelle St Frai, and our group leader and depute leader said a few words before we headed back to the hotel for lunch. We left Lourdes that afternoon, and began the significantly less appealing journey home.
Going to Lourdes was a beautiful spiritual experience, and one I would highly recommend. Seeing the strength of the faith there was truly inspiring and amazing to witness. We hear a lot about how faith is dying in our world today, but Lourdes proves the opposite. So many people gathering in a very public place to witness their faith and honour Our Lady and St Bernadette is so great to see. It makes you so proud to be a Catholic. On a personal level, I feel that I grew a lot as a person and also in my faith. I had heard it said a lot that “no one comes back from Lourdes the same person”, and having been now I can see what they mean.
I absolutely loved my time in Lourdes, and a large part of that was due to the amazing people in our group. Every single person was so kind and lovely to be around – at the end of the pilgrimage our leader remarked on how usually within groups there will be some personality clashes, but in this group there was nothing of the sort. Everyone got on so well with each other and I know I have formed some really strong friendships.
Lourdes is a beautiful place in every sense, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to go. I am very grateful to the Catenians for providing financial support to allow me to go on this pilgrimage. I had been warned before I left that going to Lourdes was “addictive”, and I strongly relate to that now, as I am already making plans to return next year, and hopefully I’ll be returning for many years to come.