And like that, it was all over!
At least, that is what it felt like. The days have gone by so quickly here and this evening, we had our closing ceremony, placed our pilgrimage candle opposite the Grotto, said our goodbyes to our friends – old and new – and began to put our mind towards flight schedules, packing, and racking our brains to see if we might have forgotten someone or something.
But let’s rewind, because our day started off with a Mass that is very special and meaningful for so, so many. So many people come up to me each year to tell me how the Mass, with anointing of the sick, can be a very moving experience for them. Trying to write about it here can’t do it justice, that’s for sure. And by way of explanation for what I mean by that, I am reminded of what one Oblate priest, Fr Michael O’Connor, said to me late last evening as we sat in the bar at the hotel and recalled the day. He described this year’s pilgrimage as being “very deep.” That phrase can mean a multitude, and it can also mean many things to many people. However, I think I knew what he meant. There was something indefinable, something greater at work in these days. It was very much a felt sense more than anything else.
And if that, indeed, has been a description of this pilgrimage, then this morning’s Mass was the epitome of it. It was a beautiful Mass, with a wonderful homily given by our ‘new’ bishop, Bishop Eamon Walsh. He captured the sense of the pilgrimage, that deep sense that Fr Michael spoke of to me last evening. And as the anointing took place among the hundreds gathered there at the St Bernadette Altar, outdoor and beside the great doors of the Rosary Basilica, the sun shone down on us and that felt sense told us that this truly, was a grace-filled moment.
As that Mass ended, and we announced that the Closing Ceremony was the next event on our pilgrimage programme, we all knew that our Oblate pilgrimage, for this year, was drawing to a close.
And so it was that shortly after 5:30pm in the St Bernadette Centre, we had that closing ceremony. It is more properly described as a ‘missioning’ service as all of us are (re)commissioned, to go back to our own places, to carry the message that we have heard here, the lessons that we have learned, back to our own homes and our own communities.
Perhaps we all wanted it to last a little longer? But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Our lives cannot be lived in Lourdes, and neither must our lives be solely about these days. If we are being true to the message of Lourdes that we hear, true to the Gospel call, then we must live Lourdes with our families, our communities.
While all of the closing ceremony is beautiful, I might be forgiven for highlighting two particular parts and while they are entirely separate, the link between the two is unbreakable.
The first is where those who have given five years of service to our pilgrimage and to our assisted pilgrims, have the opportunity to make a commitment to continue to serve the sick. This is most clearly not an award but marks, if you like, a five-year apprenticeship. Now these people are ready to make the promise; after five years, they understand at a deep level, what it is to be a member of the pilgrimage Hospitalité. This commitment is marked by the presentation of the five-year medal. Every year we are here, this small but important ceremony is a highlight for all of us and 2022 was no different.
The second, though linked event is a very infrequent one. Some years ago, we instigated the McGonagle Medal, named after a former, now deceased, spiritual Director of the pilgrimage, Fr Willie McGonagle OMI. The McGonagle Medal is given to those who have served the pilgrimage for 50 years. To date, there have been two recipients, viz. our Director of Nursing Miriam McDonnell and a nurse of very long standing, Lily Tubman.
This year, a former nurse and long-time servant of the pilgrimage, Geraldine Walsh, received the McGonagle Medal, which was presented to her by Bishop Eamon. Geraldine had not been forewarned that it was to be presented to her and it was at once, both a shock and a very emotional moment for her. There are few who don’t know Geraldine and there was huge applause throughout the St Bernadette Centre when her name was called, and the medal presented to her. It is a long time of service and Geraldine is a very worthy recipient.
And so with the presentation, our time came to a close. Fr Lorcán said some closing words, thanking especially, Bishop Eamon Walsh, and then, it was over, our 2022 pilgrimage was over.
Well nearly over! Bishop Walsh approached the podium and expressed the wishes of everyone present there this afternoon and thanked Lorcán for his leadership of the pilgrimage and all that he has done to make it the success that it has been in 2022.
Our minds now turn to 2023. We pray for a return of the Assisted Pilgrims, a return to the Accueil Notre Dame, and to the ‘normality’ that we once thought was unshakeable – until a virus made its way around the world and our fragility was brought home to all of us.
The planning begins!