This year for the first time for many years, more than 100 men, women and children including more than 20 assisted pilgrims from East Anglia were in Lourdes for the Annual Pilgrimage.
In fact, for the first time ever, there were more East Anglians than pilgrims from any of the other (much larger) dioceses or groups. And what is more we took more ‘assisted pilgrims’ than anyone else and more nurses; and East Anglian volunteers continued to command the laundry which is a vital if unglamorous part of our commitment that allows us to have beds in the Accueil St Bernadette, across the river from the Grotto.
We also had more young people with us this year than for a while, but still need to build on this (take a bow the Ball family from Norwich for their leadership with young people). To crown it all, this year Bishop Alan was the ‘lead bishop’ and led the whole pilgrimage, presiding at the opening and closing Mass.
The weather was kind, the schedule full and – based on the testimony of many – the atmosphere of prayer and togetherness really wonderful. Highlights, as ever, were the Mass in the Grotto where Our Lady appeared 18 times to Bernadette in 1858 and, for the assisted pilgrims, the visit to the baths and to the healing spring that gushed forth after Our Lady asked Bernadette to dig her fingers into the sand in the Grotto.
Many people will have had their own special moments. I think of important conversations – perhaps especially with two non-Catholics who had had devastating medical diagnoses and could think of nowhere but Lourdes to come to terms with them, or another non-Catholic, recently and very suddenly bereaved, who had come for the same reason.
They said, they found it as much in the people they were with as in the place itself. And of course, I rejoice in times of personal prayer, and of a journey with a seminarian up the funicular railway to Pic de Jer, with Lourdes spread out 1,000 feet below and six buzzards drifting on the thermals just below us. Everyone would want to share different but comparable experiences.
Of course, it is challenging to get there. It is expensive, not least because of the weak pound, and although much effort has been and will be put into finding ways of keeping costs down, it is expensive and one of the sadnesses this year is how many people signed up and then had to pull out for financial reasons.
There is some diocesan money to help, but it is not enough to meet the full demand. And with six dioceses and other groups, with about 20 leaders meeting daily to co-ordinate all that goes on, a few things slip through all the good intentions. But I hope it is the case that every-one who came is glad that they came. I know for sure that for some it is the highlight of their year.
On the diocesan website you can see Bishop Alan’s inspiring homily at the opening Mass of the pilgrimage – in the underground basilica, the extraordinary underground church which seats about 20,000 pilgrims and is inspired by the idea of an upturned boat (‘the barque of Peter’ dedicated to Pope St Pius X).
We had three of our major liturgies in this church and most of us took part in the procession of the Blessed Sacrament from across the river close to the Grotto to the basilica for adoration and benediction, the dulcet tones of one of our deacons leading the prayers inside and broadcast far beyond the church.
For all those who came in 2019, and all those wondering about coming in 2020, come to the Mass on February 8, 2020 in the Cathedral (the Saturday closest to the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes) to find out more about an even bigger and better pilgrimage next year.
Pictured top is the Diocese of East Anglia group in Lourdes and, above, Bishop Alan Hopes preaching. Pictures by Durand.