Looking out the window as I begin this, there is the evidence all about that the end of the year isn’t all that far away. It is a little colder, certainly dark evenings, and living as I do in a rural location, natures signs are all about to remind us, even if we did not know the date, that we are well and truly into Autumn.
For the second year in succession, the year is closing without the traditional Oblate Lourdes pilgrimage. This has been such a central part of the year for so many of us that there is a real feeling of loss, of sadness, that our pilgrimage has not been possible. Of course, we must put this into context; the Covid pandemic has been a most terrible time and our inability to arrange a pilgrimage cannot be compared to how people have suffered over the past 20 months. For Oblates, the pandemic and its effects became very real from the beginning with the deaths of four Oblates from Inchicore, viz. Frs Anthony Carroll, Tom Scully, John Nolan, and John Murphy – all in the space of six days. May they rest in peace.
The Lourdes pilgrimage is part of the life blood of the Oblates of the Anglo-Irish Province and so, while it was not possible to go to Lourdes physically, modern technology that could not even have been imagined when our pilgrimage began in 1883, made it possible to put together a full pilgrimage programme online, across the internet. And so it was that in September, we went on a pilgrimage journey with our second digital pilgrimage. It was a rich and varied experience of prayer, of personal sharing, of liturgies that despite the medium, evoked many of the same responses as happens each year in Lourdes. Every year, so many people speak of looking forward to our Mass with the anointing of the sick, celebrated at St Bernadette’s Altar beside the Rosary Basilica. This year, for the second time, we had the privilege of celebrating this liturgy with the staff and residents of Curragh Lawn Nursing Home and for all who joined in via the internet, the depth of meaning and faith, conveyed and celebrated in that Mass, was no less evident.
Of course, we would love to have made that journey to all the familiar places - to walk through the Grotto, and see afresh the spring that never changes, to walk the Stations of the Cross along the River Gave, be able to respond to the invitation of Our Lady, issued through St Bernadette to us to “come and wash ourselves in the water” at the Baths, and of course, to renew friendships that are important to us, nourished through service over very many years in Lourdes. All these things we missed. And despite all of this, person after person made the same comment: “I felt like I was there.”
It was a pilgrimage that brought together people from all parts of our Oblate pilgrimage world, from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and the island of Jersey and of course, our ‘new’ Oblate family, those who have learned about us and shared our prayer online since the onset of Covid. The team at Kairos Communications from Maynooth were invaluable and brought all their professional expertise and commitment as we recorded the liturgies in Inchicore and Kildare. And where would we be without Rebecca Roughneen, our digital communications leader, as it was on her shoulders that responsibility rested to manage all the inputs and contributions and create the pilgrimage. Very few really know the professionalism and effort required to do this.
During the pilgrimage and beforehand, we invited people to send in their petitions and with those petitions in hand, some 592 days after I had last set foot there, it was possible to return and stand once more at the most sacred place of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was a privilege and a gift to be there - I know that. I made my way to the Grotto, carrying both in hands and my heart, the very many petitions sent in, and presented them there to Our Lady, praying and knowing that she would, in turn, present them to her Son.
The 2021 pilgrimage is now behind us and not unsurprisingly, our thoughts now turn to 2022. As these words are being written, there is great uncertainty throughout all the pilgrimage groups around Ireland about plans for 2022. Covid numbers are rising again, the vulnerable continue to be vulnerable and it would be a foolish person who would say that they know how things will be when September, our usual time of pilgrimage, comes about.
Recently, two key national meetings took place, the first one being the lay leadership of all the Irish pilgrimages including dioceses, religious congregations (Oblates and Franciscans), and association groups (e.g., Order of Malta). The second meeting was that of UIP, the association of the Pilgrimage Directors from across Ireland. The primary topic of conversation for both was Lourdes 2022.
Key individuals from Lourdes, including the Vice-Rector and his team, François Labadie, Director of the Accueil Notre Dame, as well as Patrick Vinuales, head of the Vinuales Hotel Group (Solitude, Panorama, etc.) and David Walsh, all contributed to one or both meetings. It was clear from these presentations, as well, it must be said, from the experience of our Director Nursing, Miriam McDonnell who was in Lourdes in October, and my own experience shortly before, that Lourdes in all its forms – sanctuary, town, hotels, and restaurants – are making huge efforts to ensure the health-safety of all visitors.
So where do we stand? The leadership team, led by Fr Lorcán, held a meeting one week ago to discuss this. Our conclusion was that we will return on pilgrimage in 2022, scheduled for September 17 through 22 and we will begin to work with David Walsh soon to plan the logistics of this decision. We also decided that for now it would be premature to return with our full assisted pilgrims’ group; the situation vis-à-vis those whose health is already compromised makes them very vulnerable and the risks of travelling to, and being in, another country, when Covid is still present, are too great.
In February, the annual February Days will take place in Lourdes, a time when pilgrimages come together to finalise plans. Our leadership team will be there and only after those meetings will we make final decisions about 2022. There are almost three months to those meetings and a lot can happen. For this reason, final decisions around the composition of the pilgrimage will be deferred until the end of February. In the meantime, and with the certainty that there will be a pilgrimage in 2022, we hope that you will put the dates in your diary so that we can once again gather in Lourdes, in 2022 as much in thanks as in supplication!
By Gerard Bennett