An Across Pilgrimage is an assault on all your senses and emotions. Photos, words and second hand accounts do not do justice to what is an incredible and unique experience.
Lourdes, for a first time pilgrim at least, is a dichotomy of sights, sounds and sensations that collide and while perhaps not fitting in perfect harmony with each other somehow come together to form something that works: The Domain with the tranquillity and beauty of the Grotto, nestling under the magnificence of the Upper Basilica. The ornate brilliance of the Rosary Basilica and the brutal modernism of the Church of St Bernadette and the cavernous underground Basilica of St Pius X. Then there is the centre of Lourdes, pressing and confining the narrow streets with tacky souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. One could argue that Lourdes offers a concentrated mixture of religion and society, bottled in a stunning setting at the foot of the Pyrenees, all at once part of and separate from the World around.
My first trip to Lourdes started at Newport Pagnell services on a sunny and warm Thursday in early May. Little time it seemed had passed and we were already heading towards Paris, the Chunnel and dinner but a brief fleeting memory. 20 hours on a bus (a lot more for those travelling from Scotland) sounds a long time but the reality felt very much less as we entered Lourdes and arrived at the Hotel Med just before lunch on Friday.
The bus unloaded, baggage taken to the rooms with military efficiency and lunch polished off, we headed toward the Domain. What followed, for me, was a week of new and wonderful experiences.
We celebrated Mass everyday in different locations: The first evening it was the group alone in the simple room set aside in the Hotel. The next day it was at the Grotto, the service taken by His Eminence, Cardinal Archbishop Dolan of New York, among a congregation of many hundreds of pilgrims from the Order of Malta. In the grounds of the Polish Mission overlooking Lourdes under clear blue-skies on a warm sunny day, the church at Gedre on another and not forgetting the Ukrainian Church, its golden domes glittering even though it was a cloudy day. The Masses bought our group closer together, sharing our prayers, sorrow, tears, joy and laughter.
Visiting the Grotto (by day and night), the Torchlight Procession, the Blessed Sacrament Procession ending in the underground Basilica, visits to Gavarnie and Bartres, a picnic at Lac de Lourdes, visiting the Baths and doing the High Stations in torrential rain were all wonderful experiences which I will treasure, but the thing that made the pilgrimage special for me (as I’m sure it is for most people) was caring for and sharing the experience with the VIPs: The reason why we travel as Helpers.
I found my week in Lourdes humbling, grounding and a privilege (not forgetting tiring!) to share the experience with everyone on the pilgrimage. In those few, brief moments I had to myself during the week I reflected on why I was there and what I was doing, giving my time to support those more in need than myself.
I have faced many challenges in my life including beating cancer. However these have been but short interludes in my life and pale into insignificance compared to the challenges many of our VIPs face on a daily basis. Their fortitude, dignity, humour and the indomitable strength of their human spirit are inspiring and humbling and I recognise how lucky I am. The moments I value most are those when the VIPs were able to be themselves. To be free to laugh and be happy or to cry without the fear of being judged. I smile whenever I recall Stephen (one of the VIPs I supported) burst into spontaneous laughter for no apparent reason! This typified for me what the week was about.
I also saw religion at its best. We say that an Across pilgrimage is open to anyone, whatever their beliefs. While Lourdes holds great importance for those of the Roman Catholic faith you do not have to be a Catholic to experience and exemplify Christian values and to gain spiritually from going there. As a new person to the fold I felt welcomed and accepted, despite there being many people on the pilgrimage who had travelled together many times before.
The sun was shining when I was dropped off at Newport Pagnell. My wife, daughter and son, whom I’d missed greatly, were there to meet me. I was tired physically and mentally, however, I also felt refreshed and energised. My first pilgrimage to Lourdes was a very special week for me on many levels and the memories I will treasure for a long time. I look forward to hopefully many more to come.