It was with joy that a large group from our diocese returned to Lourdes for the last week of August after a three-year gap. As ever, we went as part of the Catholic Association with other southern dioceses, with past and present pupils from Stonyhurst College in Lancashire and with a large cohort of children with severe physical or mental challenges and their carers (the ‘Glandfield Group’). There were 54 East Anglians amongst the regular pilgrims and carers, but there were more within the Glandfield group, so probably something like 65 in all.
We were the largest of the component groups – and provided six of the eleven priests and the only three deacons, so we certainly pulled our weight within the Catholic Association! And since the Association was collectively more than 250 strong, it was the biggest pilgrimage in Lourdes for most of our week there, and as a result we had the privilege of leading not only one of the eucharistic processions which take place every day at 5pm, but also two of the torchlight processions that end each day at 9pm and are a highlight for many of us.
It was a joyful pilgrimage despite complications with the travel arrangements in both directions (not easy to get to Birmingham airport on a rail strike day!). With mass and other liturgies every day, there was a solid framework for the pilgrimage but also much free time for private devotions and (more than I have known it) for meaningful conversations with one another. Above all, Lourdes once more proved a place where the weakest and most vulnerable came first. I for one was humbled by encounters with those whose faith and trust in God, whose search for healing not just, or not particularly, physical healing but a healing of spirit, was realised.
There were many post-covid changes. We could not ask our exhausted doctors and nurses to come to staff the hospital (‘accueil’) so it was not possible for those in need of constant medical support to come this year. We missed them. Post-covid there have been major changes in the baths where pilgrims have plunged naked into the stream that miraculously appeared at Our Lady’s command to St Bernadette. Now, each pilgrim is invited to stand next the spring and water from it is poured three times, first for a washing of the hands, then of the face and finally as a drink.
This in fact replicates what Bernadette did back in 1858 and all the pilgrims I spoke to found it as moving and uplifting as the previous full immersion. Following the lead of the new Bishop of Northampton, members of our group also added to the ceremonial blessing and lighting of a large candle for all the people of the diocese by coming up to the candle and one-by-one placed their hands on it, offering up their prayers. Only then was the candle – which will burn for many days – placed in the special areas immediately across the river from the Grotto where Bernadette encountered Our Lady 18 times.
There were also two entirely new events this year. All the pilgrims except the Glandfield Group went in buses up to the ‘Cathedral in the trees’ in ‘the City of the Poor’. This is high up behind Lourdes in the hills where (mainly young) helpers camp or live in hostels while they assist pilgrims in Lourdes in in a range of ways. Once there we had to trek, pushing many wheelchairs further up the hill to an outdoor altar set amongst mature trees. There we had a wonderfully peaceful and serene mass.
To crown it all, our diocesan mass, just for East Anglians, was moved up to Bartres, the unspoiled village up in the hills on the other side of Lourdes, where Bernadette lived for two spells in her early life, the second time just before her encounters with Our Lady. Fr Tony Rogers presided at our Mass there and we all agreed this was a must for future years (especially since there was also time for a convivial cup of tea or coffee (or glass of this or that!) at La petite bergère [the little shepherdess]. For many this was the highlight of a week which has many, perhaps most, would call transformative. We hope many more will be there next year when the pilgrimage will run from 18 to 25 August, assisted by a new diocesan director, Deacon Huw Williams from Haverhill.
Pictured above are East Anglian pilgrims at the Grotto at Lourdes and, below, in procession.