Reflections on Lourdes

I first experienced Lourdes as a very young man over 30 years ago when I had the privilege at the age of 21 of being a brancardier, helping with the support of the sick from the airport to the infirmary, and also assisting at the baths. My recollections then as a student were of Lourdes as a special   and holy place where the sick were nurtured and cared for and where spiritual succour was bountiful. I remember vividly my first Holy Sacrament procession and also the first torchlight procession at night when I thought that I had literally experienced a bit of Heaven.

I also remember being taken aback even then at the commercial side of Lourdes and, being an idealistic young man, saw this as people trying to make money from pilgrims.

Those impressions were with me when I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Parish in September 2008. Lourdes has changed from 1972 when it was a simpler and smaller place and the changes that were noticeable to me included the transformation of the whole of the other side of the river where the new infirmary has been built. The commercial side has also grown with very many more hotels and shops.

The Grotto itself is much the same as I had remembered it apart from some changes to seating to cater for the number of pilgrims visiting, increased last year for the 150m Jubilee Year. I had remembered being at the Grotto as a very peaceful and spiritual experience and was at first disappointed this year to feel the place

crowded and busy. However, there was a real effort being made by pilgrims to keep the atmosphere at the Grotto respectful and prayerful and indeed I was able to spend time there with Our Lady in prayer and silence, along with other pilgrims of many nationalities who had come to pray and to seek Our Lady’s help and intercession.

My fellow pilgrims from St Bride’s will acknowledge with me, I am sure, the spiritual help and guidance given to us by Fr Tom in the daily Masses we celebrated together in various Churches, including the Parish Church where St Bernadette was baptised. We also as a group made the Stations of the Cross at the beautiful new Stations on the other side of the river from the Grotto and this was a very special experience.

The highlight for the pilgrimage group of course was the celebration organised by Jeanne Patterson on the day of Our Lady’s Birthday when we carried the St Bride’s banner and the St Bride’s candle through the streets of Lourdes to the accompaniment of F rank McCabe on the pipes and the cheers and claps from other pilgrims. Everyone at Mass that morning received an individual blessing for healing from Fr Tom. The candle and banner were also blessed at the end of Mass and we processed to the Grotto where the candle was placed along with the petitions from the parish. At night we processed as a parish group in the Torchlight Procession and even got a mention over the loudspeakers! We finished off the day with night prayers led by Fr Tom across the river from the Grotto.

The spiritual highlight for me, apart from what I have just described, was my visit to the Baths. I had to miss my lunch in order to queue but the wait was worthwhile. I found the experience prayerful and respectful. It was indeed a privilege to be with a group of other men of different backgrounds and nationalities, many of who were praying the rosary in silence whilst waiting their tum to go into the baths.

The actual immersion in the pool I can only describe as deeply spiritual and baptismal. I was able to hand over to Our Lady many of my worries and concerns and also the people in my life who had asked and were in need of peaceful, prayerful and refreshed. I would recommend it!

Overall, the pilgrimage to Lourdes was all that I had hoped it would be, in spite of the physical changes to the surrounding environment. I think I now have a more realistic view even of the necessary commerce of Lourdes town. The ministry to sick and disabled pilgrims from all over the world remains at the heart of the Lourdes mission and experience. Our pilgrimage had a spiritual as well as a holiday feel, encouraged and facilitated well by Jeanne and Bill Paterson, along with our tour guide, Cathy. The Torchlight and Holy Sacrament Processions were as inspirational as ever with the universal praying of the Rosary and the singing of Ave Maria. Lourdes remains a special and holy place where Our Lady with her maternal love is ever present with open arms to all who come to her.

John McGarry