Long lost friends! So many times today, it has been a case of catching up with long lost friends. The reality of the time gap has taken hold today. When we talk, the first phrase can be to refer to, “last year” until we have to stop ourselves and say, no, it wasn’t last year but 2019 or three years ago.
One year, the time from one pilgrimage to the next, is itself a long time. But three years? We have all changed in some way. And over the day, I have listened to stories of the lives that people have lived in those three years. In some cases, of friends who are no longer with us; in other cases, of our own special Oblate friends who have themselves suffered major illness. Lourdes is always a place where the fragility of life is on show every day of the week but in some way, we have never seen ourselves and each other in that context. But three years shows the cracks. And in its own way, this is making our return all the special. Already it is clear that these days of being together after an absence of three years is precious and we must make the most of it.
We started off our day with the Way of the Cross. For the fit and hardy, it was the so-called High Stations. For the rest of us, we made our way to the Low Stations, the amazing sculptures that were created about ten years ago with some wonderful interpretations of those final days in the life of Jesus.
The sun shone, people spoke up loudly with their prayers and entered into this special time in a very obviously complete way. To use a phrase from the Gospels, “it is wonderful to be here.”
The pilgrimage started with a lot of travel disruption due to a strike by air traffic control in France (God bless them!). The final group to arrive was Edinburgh, who arrived at their hotel at about 4:00pm this afternoon (Sunday) – they were originally due on Friday! And our Youth Service, an amazing team of forty-two young people led by Pádraig Corcoran arrived in Lourdes about 6:00am this morning having travelled through the night from Nantes. Having had their Friday flight cancelled, the only alternative was a late-night flight to Nantes (in north-eastern France) followed by a seven-hour coach journey to Lourdes, in south-eastern France. Now that’s commitment! Next time someone, in a church or parish setting, bemoans the lack of young people, just remember what these forty-two did in order to get to Lourdes.
Bishop Eamon Walsh led our opening Mass. With Bishop Ray Field being unwell and no longer able to lead our pilgrimage, Fr Lorcán approached Bishop Walsh and he very kindly agreed to join our pilgrimage. He presided at our opening Mass. Looking around the Bernadette Centre where we celebrated Mass, all of what was real about pilgrimage was on show.
Tonight, we walked in the torchlight procession. Lourdes has many traditions and undoubtedly, the torchlight Marian procession is one of them. It is impossible to walk in that procession without an awareness of the millions who have walked those same steps since the request of Our Lady to St Bernadette to, “come in procession.” The torchlight is a faithful and ongoing response to that request from Our Lady. As we walk and pray, the fact that we are doing what Our Lady asked is a powerful context for our prayer.
The day ended quietly. There is no doubt that this is different. The natural tendency is to head towards the Accueil Notre Dame, where our Assisted Pilgrims stay in any other year. But this year, while we have a wonderful group of people with mobility assistance needs, we do not have the Assisted Pilgrims. When a Mass or other service ends, we don’t go to the Accueil; we have no work to do! So it is it not the same. And yet, there is the deep sense we are doing here and now what we are meant to do; come on pilgrimage, pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, and follow in the footsteps of all those Oblate people who have walked this path since our first pilgrimage in 1883.
It has been a good day. Seeing old friends, reminiscing of times we have had here before, and revelling in the grace that has enabled us to be here. Lourdes is a constant; the water still flows at the Grotto, candles continued to be lit, prayers are said.
It is wonderful to be here.