-The journey so far, written from young pilgrims perspectives
I have called the title of our Journey Pray Love Eat, a slight variation of Eat Pray Love (book and film, starring Julia Roberts, just in case anyone wasn’t familiar) as I feel it does really sum up our journey as young pilgrims in a nutshell. I decided ‘pray’ must go before anything else, as this is perhaps the foremost reason we came on our journey- to pray and be closer to God through prayer and reflection. Secondly, love is something we have all shared through chatting, laughter, exchanges of stories and acts of service to others. And last but not least, I decided Eat was just as an important part of our journey than the former two- I mean this in the sense of the meals we share together as a group that bring us even closer together, enjoying the occasional treats France has to offer us (ice cream in particular) and most importantly, receiving the Host, the body of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The journey- Day 1 & 2
I’ll begin with the part that I think we all dreaded as the thought of an 18 hour coach journey with others I didn’t know very well seemed quite daunting to me! However, although it is rather uncomfortable, you feel pretty achy and most likely won’t have the most refreshing amount of sleep (however, we did have a few that slept like logs), it seems to pass quite quickly with lots of chat, laugher and a couple of DVDs we were fortunate enough to have. Bonding with each other through food also seemed to be the way forward!
Nevertheless, I think there is something about the physical journey of getting to Lourdes that is quite significant. At this early point of the journey, there may not feel like there is much of a spiritual aspect to it yet, but I tried to see this part of the experience in this way. The discomfort and suffering is a part of any journey, especially on a pilgrimage. Through that suffering and discomfort, we are humbled and realise we are lucky for the things of comfort we possess. No journey can ever really be made without the highs and lows (very cliché, but very true!) So although we all felt the next day a little tired (probably a slight under statement), we were grateful for a nights sleep in the hotel and were the most grateful for being at our destination.
Our arrival- Day 2 of our Journey
We arrived into Lourdes around midday on the Friday, tired as you can maybe imagine, but still eager to jump into all Lourdes had to offer us. What struck me the most about our arrival in on the coach were the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains. We couldn’t see the Domain by the Coach very clearly but as soon as we settled into our rooms we set off to explore the area by foot. The area is busy but as soon as you enter its overwhelmingly beautiful and the attention to detail that has been put into it is amazing. It’s very difficult to describe in words, as one pilgrim said to me and I really do agree. The statue of Our Crowned Virgin in particular is very eye-catching during the day, but at night is when it must be seen.
That evening we visited the grotto for the first time, the place of Bernadette’s visions of Mary. We saw the tiny stream that appeared to Bernadette, covered in glass to preserve it. We also stroked our hand along the rock of the grotto also, which interestingly was once a rough surface but has been touched by so many pilgrims it has been smoothed down. We watched the Torch Light Procession from one of the higher points of the Domain to get an overview of what we would be taking part in during the week. The atmosphere of the ceremony is amazing- the darkness of the night sky, the mountains in the background, the tiny bright flames of light, the statue of Our Lady with its luminous glow. It’s a very unforgettable sight and is every bit as picturesque as it sounds!
During the procession what I was truly struck by was helpers and their assisted pilgrims in wheelchairs, whom were leading everyone else in the procession. The treatment of these assisted pilgrims with a great sense of dignity and compassion is something Lourdes offers on such a massive scale and its so amazing to see the teachings of Christianity being demonstrated in this way. We finished the day off at a café to unwind, get to know each other in small groups and have a drink/ eat an ice cream (or both in my case) and then finally bed to refresh ourselves for the next day.
Having caught up with some well-needed rest and a very French style breakfast (including croissants, bread and very strong coffee), we made our way to the first scheduled event of the day, a Gathering mass with the Catholic Association, other groups and pilgrims. The gold (more like a very strong, bold yellow) NYMO shirts made their first appearance on this occasion and we wore them with pride. We had duties before the Mass, such as stewarding and welcoming people into Mass with a friendly greeting and smile. I had a few comments from the assisted pilgrims, grateful for our positive welcome to the mass that encouraged our efforts even further. The scale of the mass made the usual Sunday morning one at my Parish seem a like a very small gathering, but nonetheless was a very inspiring experience. I find this one of the most encouraging parts of Lourdes, knowing there are many others with your faith from many parts of the UK and the rest of the world. Some of the NYMO group acted as Eucharist Protectors, which meant they followed the Priest in his duty of distributing the communion, making sure Mass attenders ate their communion on the spot (some will otherwise try to take it with them). The afternoon that followed was a tour of Lourdes by Father Andy and one part I found the most interesting was the tour of St. Bernadette’s house and learning more about her story.
Nonetheless, the best part of our day had to be the Torchlight procession, the one we had witnessed earlier and our involvement within it. Some carried the Northampton Diocese banner, some held the rope to control the crowds and a few of us got to hold large poles with candles at the top (I’m not sure of their official name, sorry!), stood for a couple of hours perhaps in the same spot, which sounds extremely tiring and painful, but watching the procession coming towards us was amazing. After the procession had come to its halt, us lucky few with the candlesticks came to the front, where standing were the choir, many priests and bishops in front of endless, endless crowds of people with their candles. It sounds pretty daunting but as someone who is usually a little nervous of large crowds, that anxiety was overcome by feeling so privileged- out of the so many pilgrims there at Lourdes, we had been chosen to perform that duty. The pain was rewarded by that experience, reminding us again of the nature of a pilgrimage is to suffer but to also gain.
Highlights of the day included taking part in the International Mass of around 25,000 mass goers, some of us taking part as Eucharist Protectors again that was a real privilege. The Mass was spoken in many different languages, again reminding us the Catholic Faith is a worldwide community. We visited the hospital in our small groups, finding assisted pilgrims to share our company with. It isn’t a lie about what they tell you about the elderly, they sure do have a lot of stories and we were amazed by one of our assisted pilgrims telling us she had been around the world four times, including a few visits to Lourdes! Sharing stories with others has to be another favourite aspect of my experience so far also, not only from our group but others have so much to share if you have an ear to listen. The Blessed Sacrament Procession came after that which we took part in, and some of our members had roles as servers/ assisting on the alter. Attending many services and Masses very frequently during the day gives so much time for us to just focus upon our faith.
My personal highlight of the day was travelling up by coach to a lake, sitting beside it and having some singing, prayer and amazing words of wisdom from our Bishop Peter Doyle and other speakers. The evening was beginning to turn into night, making the event feel all the more atmospheric and had a very positive response from all of us (from some of us just because it involved just sitting, listening, singing and praying, giving our tiresome feet a rest). A free soft drink, wine or beer was kindly offered to us where we socialised with some of the CA volunteers and heard their experiences of Lourdes. The social aspect of the trip has been amazing so far, reminding us there is time for prayer and time to relax and enjoy!
It’s surreal to think we’ve been in Lourdes for four days now, and the days have zoomed by (unfortunately, as I know soon we’ll have only a few days left). It’s been such a positive experience and I only wish I had time to write more about the finer details of the day. Today we began with Mass at the grotto, where my focus whilst saying the prayers was on the statue of Our Lady. The weather warmed up and the sun started shining just as we were ending Mass. Next on the agenda was Penitential service, where we had a chance to do confession, which most decided to take up. I had not been for several years, finding the experience quite nerve racking and felt vulnerable opening up to the priest, who gave me some amazing words of wisdom. This has inspired me to go to confession more often, as I have been encouraged to so many times. Just as the priests on our pilgrimage assured us, we will not be judged, only forgiven.
After that emotional experience, Father Andy took us up to the stations of the cross which were on a hill beside the main domain. I had never seen anything like these particular ones, which were life-sized statues in a kind of bronze/ gold colour, representing each different station. Nonetheless, there wasn’t a straight forward path to visit these representations and we had a strenuous walk upwards to each one. We paused at each statue and remembered how Jesus suffered for us as he carried the cross, stumbling and falling at points. The physical journey of reaching all of these whilst genuflecting at each one certainly tested us, with the heat also giving us a challenge to rise to. It seemed very significant we were going up hill, giving us time to think about the pain Jesus must have suffered on a way larger scale. The scenery was also very beautiful at the top, adding to the enjoyment of the experience. Afterwards, a sit down and an ice cream from an ice cream shop 5 minutes down the road from our hotel (very convenient indeed) was needed and I thought, well deserved.
The evening was a mixture of social time, including one of our pilgrims getting the guitar out and hearing some incredible singing. Most decided to go to bed early with an early start the next day. However, we are all coping so well with the tiredness and busy days, keeping our high spirits in check and helping each other on our journey.
An early start for our Northampton Diocesan Mass today, a small intimate gathering- quite a contrast from what we had experienced in the past few days which was quite refreshing. After this, there was a Diocesan photo taken with our group- not looking forward to seeing my own face in this! Our schedule for the past days has been quite intense, so a trip to see the beautiful Pyrenee’s Mountains in an area called Gavarnie was welcomed, just for time to appreciate our surroundings. The journey to get there took around an hour, a rough journey for someone who suffers from motion sickness (nonetheless, the beautiful views more or less made up for it)! We split off into our own groups- I think most went up as far as they could go! We didn’t manage the top (it may have taken slightly longer than the few hours we had…), but sat in a lovely spot and ate our packed lunch, prayed and relaxed. The spectacular views and the amazing beauty of the area were something to appreciate and thank God for- seeing the wonderful aspects of nature always makes me think our planet was created by God to enjoy and look after.
In the evening we had a chat with Father Damien and Bishop Peter, asking them any questions we had, which they answered wisely and openly. We had an evening of fun and games, with a quiz, bringing out a little more than a competitive spirit in some of us! Later on we went to the prairie and had a short service in the dark. The pilgrimage so far has made me realise how different praying in the morning in comparison to the evening can me. In my personal experience, praying in the evening can be a little more reflective.
-Joanna Kay, Bedfordshire
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