If everything had gone as planned, then I would have started writing my first instalment of the pilgrimage blog yesterday, Friday. However, French Air Traffic Control had other plans and so it was that there was no travel yesterday.
People are converging on Lourdes from many parts of the Oblate world throughout Britain and Ireland. There are people travelling from London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Jersey, Dublin, and Cork. It can all to easy to look to places where Oblate priests and brothers served in the past but are no longer present but then we look at the list of places from which people are travelling and it is clear that the legacy of these men, and especially the Oblate spirit, is alive in these Oblate people. After all, it is only a few months since the worldwide Oblate Lay Associations Congress, an event that affirmed the central role of lay people in living out the Oblate charism in all parts of the world.
For the group that I was with, we have travelled from Dublin to Lourdes by an indirect route, via Toulouse, which is about two hours north of Lourdes. Our main group from Ireland have travelled direct to Lourdes. For us, it is a coach from Toulouse to Lourdes. Time to relax!
As we waited at the departure gate, you can imagine our surprise when an Aer Lingus aircraft came to the gate and on the side, the name of the aircraft. Aer Lingus aircraft have traditionally been named after saints – a tradition that it is good to see continued to this day. And the name on the aircraft outside the window? St Eugene! Now of course, no-one would suggest that it was named after St Eugene de Mazenod but I suppose that the particular St Eugene can be of one’s own choosing?
However, very soon it became clear that this was not to be our aircraft. Ours was St Malachy – a good Irish saint to be sure but not St Eugene! We listened for the announcements and St Eugene was going to Malaga! Not quite a religious pilgrimage (although maybe a pilgrimage of sorts for some!!). Given the choice, then quite honestly, I was more than happy with my destination.
Tonight it is a opening ceremony, not Mass, but an opportunity to remind ourselves of the place to which we have come. For so many people, it has been three years – yes, three – since last setting foot here. Most left Lourdes in September 2019 not knowing that we would have to wait so long for a return visit. But now, that waiting is over. We have arrived. The Oblates are back in Lourdes and for this, we can only say a grateful thanks to Our Lady for the gift of allowing us to be here once more.
Of course, 2022 will be a very different pilgrimage. The biggest difference will be that this year, we do not have our sick, our Assisted Pilgrims, with us. While Covid is much diminished in its impacted, it hasn’t gone away and after very careful assessment, our medical team had to make the difficult decision that our duty of care to our Assisted Pilgrims was such that bring them to Lourdes was not possible. Of course, we are sad about this, after all. As someone said to me a few years ago, Lourdes without the sick is like the St Vincent de Paul without the poor. But, please God, in 2023, we hope to be able to have our assisted pilgrims with us once again.
For now, the pilgrimage has begun! The day for which we have all waited is finally upon us. We hope that you will join us each day while we are here, through the many opportunities on our website, our Facebook page and our YouTube channel.