In the weeks leading up to this pilgrimage, we spoke frequently about how different this pilgrimage was going to be in so many ways. To be sure, not having been in Lourdes with the pilgrimage after an absence of three years, we knew that being back would have a different sense about it. A year is a long time but three?
However, while we commented often about the fact that it would be different, we found it very difficult to define or describe the expected difference. We would have fewer pilgrims – of course! In other years, our usual pilgrimage, including all of those from across the Oblate missions in these islands, would number between 500 and 600 people. In 2022, very many were not confident enough to travel – yet – in this post-Covid world and so, the number here is about 300, or 50% of the usual number.
The biggest absence, that which we feel the greatest, is the absence of our Assisted Pilgrims, our sick, the special group of people who want to come to the shrine of Our Lady here in Lourdes but for whom it would be impossible without the help that our volunteers provide in order to make such a pilgrimage possible. For so many of us, we have never experienced the Oblate pilgrimage without these special guests. It is what draws us back, year in and year out.
Even as I write this, I look at the words I have written, and I write of the help that we provide – as if it is all about the giving. But writing personally and knowing from things said to me by others countless times over the years, we might start out thinking that we’re giving but time and again, we realise that receive much more than we give. It is a privilege and a gift to be able to serve and when we think on this a little more deeply, it is to realise that when we do this, we are making the Gospel alive. Isn’t that what we’re all called to do by virtue of our baptism?
We all know the words of the song very well – when here in Lourdes, they bring very special meaning:
“Will you let me be your servant;
let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
to let you be my servant too.”
Is it any wonder then, when our Assisted Pilgrims, who are central to us being here, our raison d’être if you like, are not here that we would consider how this loss would affect the pilgrimage and each of us individually.
We had nothing to fear! Our pilgrimage has undoubtedly a different dynamic; we don’t do all the things that we did before. But as we have processed each day from the Crowned Virgin statue in a line of about 250 people there can be no doubting the depth of feeling that exists, the sense of gratitude that pervades so many conversations, about the gift that it is to have the Oblates back in Lourdes.
This morning, we had our Grotto Mass. This is always a special time; to be able to celebrate Mass together at the Grotto is a highlight and this morning was no different. Fr Lorcán preached on the theme of Mary’s ‘yes’ to accepting the call (unhesitatingly) to be the Mother of God. Lorcán said: “And here is Mary’s true greatness. Not so much that she was chosen to be the Mother of God but that she responded with such generosity. And right up to the very end, she stood by her Son. Mary didn’t just say her ‘yes’ once, she had to repeat that original ‘yes’ many times during her life. The same is true in our own lives. Each of us has said ‘yes’ when we have undertaken commitments and responsibilities. Down through the ages, many people have suffered for their belief in God and for their willingness to say ‘yes.’ We are the inheritors of a faith that many people have suffered to preserve.”
He also quoted from Pope Francis when he said, “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves … The ministry of consolation is a task for every baptised person, mindful of the word of Jesus: ‘I was sick, and you visited me.’”
In the afternoon today, many of our pilgrims experienced the water gesture, as it is known and which, since the onset of Covid, has replaced the traditional immersion bath. This is proving to be very popular and to be a very meaningful experience. One aspect that so many have already taken to heart is that, as there is no longer any immersion, then women and men, as well as parents and their children, can now respond to the request of Mary to “Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself there” together, as a group, not being separated into women and men in different areas. Whether as a family, or as a group of friends, this has transformed what we have all come to know as the baths.
We ended our day with a reflection on the theme of our pilgrimage this year. Our theme is: “Healing the Healer” and Mossie Lyons led a small group from the Kairos Community Trust in London in a very personal, sometimes emotional, and always deep exploration of the theme. A number of the Kairos family shared very personally about the things in their lives, their hopes and what it is that sustains them. It was a moving experience and such a honour to be there and listen to them.
As you know, you can access the recordings of this, and every other service and Mass, through the Oblate website. I would recommend our talk this evening.
And so, yet another day draws to a close. Although it is hard to take it in, tomorrow will be the final day of our pilgrimage. How could the time have passed so quickly? But let’s not rush ahead. Midnight has not yet come on this day, Tuesday. We will awake tomorrow to another day of being here, another day of pilgrimage, and no doubt, another day of blessings, enriched by our Grotto Mass this morning, the gift of the water gesture this afternoon, and the words of Mossie and the Kairos team finding a quiet place in our hearts.