“I Really Love It”
When I was asked to write about my experiences in Lourdes I thought that it would be an easy couple of paragraphs, no big deal. That was until now, as I am sitting here actually writing, putting my words down on paper about the trips, it is a lot harder than I’d first imagined. I have never experienced anything in my whole life such as that of Lourdes. Everything I did and saw made a difference somehow especially to my life.
To date I’ve been to Lourdes three times, twice as a youth helper and once as a youth leader. Each year has been different, I’ve met new people, made friends for life, I’ve seen things and people I will never forget and I’ve heard people’s stories that will stay in my mind forever. Each person’s story is very different, some very sad portraying life as being so unfair. It can get very emotional at times, as some pilgrims are very sick. But they always keep their chins up no matter what. They make you appreciate how lucky we are to be in good health.
My first trip to Lourdes as a youth helper was 5 years ago in June 2006 the Diocese of Killaloe’s Golden Jubilee Pilgrimage. It was unexpected because Fr. Tom Ryan rang me 2 days before the Pilgrimage and asked if I would be able to go in place of someone who had to cancel unexpectedly. Having just turned 14, still very young, the thought of this seemed so exciting, a big adventure in my eyes! At that stage I hadn’t known much about Lourdes only that people went there because Our Lady appeared to a young girl, Bernadette, so pilgrims went in hope of a cure. I imagined it as a place slightly bigger than Knock, but I was wrong! On entering through St. Joseph’s gate I was amazed at the crowds of people that were there, people from around the world walking, talking and praying with each other.
As we walked across the bridge to the hospital for the first time I noticed sick pilgrims young and old from different countries, some in wheelchairs, some in three wheeled blue carts which were being pulled by helpers and others being pushed around on stretcher beds. One picture that has remained in my mind to this day is of a little 4 year old boy from Italy. He was laying down flat on his back on one of the beds, tubes around his nose, no arms or legs, he looked so sick. I’d never seen someone so young and so ill. Little did I know that I’d see many more ailing people over next few days.
When we got down to the hospital we were shown that our main job for the next few days would be pulling the blue carts for one of the sick or seriously ill people from the pilgrimage to take them to the various ceremonies. At first I was dreading the thought of pulling someone bigger than me in one of these carts; I didn’t think I’d be able for it. However, after the 5 days there when I returned home and looked back I realised that yes it was tough, yes I did get blisters on my hands, but yes I enjoyed it and yes I’d do it again.
Each of the first two pilgrimages that I’ve been on have had roughly the same daily routine. Mass every day, in different places like St. Joseph’s Chapel, Côté Carmel, at the Grotto, at St Bernadette’s Altar and in the Basilica. There is also a Eucharistic Procession and a Torchlight procession on. My favourite each year is the Torchlight Procession, everyone has a candle and the rosary is said in different languages throughout the procession. As it is during the night time there is something really moving and peaceful about it all. The mass at the Grotto, each of the three times I’ve been in Lourdes is so beautiful. Even though it is outside and thousands of pilgrims from all over the world are walking and talking just metres away everything is so peaceful. I always feel there is a magical silence there something I can only associate with the Grotto itself.
The days of the pilgrimage have an early morning start. After breakfast all the youth gather for Morning Prayer in our hotel, asking the Lord’s Blessing on the day and then helpers and leaders walk down to the hospital with a skip in their step and a smile on their face, looking forward to the day ahead. Don’t get me wrong it does take a day or two to get used of the early starts in the morning but once you get into the swing of things and the routine of things there is no stopping you. Bringing people from the sick section down to the baths is an important part of the pilgrimage. To date I haven’t went into the baths but if I get to visit Lourdes again, I will.
The strong bond between the helpers and the pilgrims in the sick section each year never ceases to amaze me! Last year, my younger sister Claire and I were both youth helpers .On the first day she got talking to this 89 year old woman and she remained with her for the five days of the Pilgrimage, they really enjoyed each other’s company and became such good friends. Most young people get on well with the people we help throughout the entire pilgrimage and at the end, when it’s time to say goodbye there are hugs and tears between the youth and the people of the sick section. The saddest thing is that there are questions in the back of your mind as you say goodbye, such as will you ever see them again? Such a harsh reality!
This year I had the great honour of being a leader in the youth section along with Fr. Fergal O’Neill, Maria Kelly, our Deacons Ger Jones and Ger Fitzgerald and Deirdre Convey. I can safely say that this year was a totally different experience, having to share responsibility for 42 young people only a little younger than myself seemed quite strange; I didn’t really know what to expect, what I was supposed to do or if I’d be any good but I made some great friends that I’ll keep in touch with. This year was extra special in a way because it was our bishop, Bishop Willie Walsh’s, finally year leading the Diocese of Killaloe’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, as he is retiring shortly. Bishop Willie’s presence means so much to all of us, both young and not so young.
After being in Lourdes three times I think that one of the main foundations of Lourdes is “Faith”. It is wonderful to see everyone in Lourdes join together in faith to celebrate Mass, participate in the torchlight procession singing hymns and praying, especially the sick, who never lose faith and keep returning every year in hope of a cure. One man this year said to me it was his 30th time visiting Lourdes, I was amazed in the faith he had, that one day he will be cured! Seeing the amount of Faith, Hope and Strength each sick person has, has given me and other youth helpers a new outlook on life in which we try not to take our good health or anything for granted. Seeing their optimism has put whatever “problems” I might have or have had into perspective.
Words cannot totally describe the experience to be had in Lourdes. No matter what I can talk about or tell you about Lourdes, there is nothing I can say or tell that can come close to equalling the experience of going and helping others first hand. In hindsight, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Although on returning home after a busy few days in Lourdes, I have felt tired and sleepy, Lourdes has been and will always continue to be, a memorable experience for me. Many of my friends ask me why I go to Lourdes, get up early every morning, and put myself through the rigours of working such a long day with an inherent lack of sleep. What I say to them is simple, “I Really Love It”.