Gratitude for a Pilgrimage to Lourdes

Brothers and sisters: Over all these things put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one Body. And be thankful.

(Col 3:14-15)

On Tuesday, April 30, we departed (from Baltimore-Washington Airport, after a bus ride from Basking Ridge) on an evening flight to Lourdes, France. Our departure had been delayed a few hours, so we took off close to midnight and arrived in Lourdes around noon (local time) on Wednesday, May 1. After a short bus ride to the hotel and some time to settle in, we gathered for Mass in a hotel conference room. I was happy to celebrate the Mass on the Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker and very happy when I saw that one of the options for the First Reading was from the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, including verses 14-15, which are quoted above.

In a brief homily, I shared with the group that the “instructions” given by St. Paul to the Colossians (and to all believers) also provide good advice for those on a pilgrimage. Although it was my first time to Lourdes, I have been blessed to participate in many other pilgrimages to Marian Shrines and Holy Places. We know that, day by day, we should “… over all these things, put on Love …” and strive to let “the peace of Christ control (our) hearts,” but a pilgrimage (or retreat) gives us a special opportunity to focus or re-focus on how we strive to live, day by day.

“… And be thankful.” After inviting the pilgrims to reflect on love and the “peace of Christ”, I encouraged them (and was reminding myself) to realize how truly blessed we were to have this opportunity to be in Lourdes. We should never forget the importance of gratitude, of giving thanks. Many of us were able to be on the pilgrimage due to the generosity of sponsors and donors, and, especially, due to the generosity of the “Knights and Dames” of the Order of Malta. I was part of a group of approximately 300 pilgrims on an annual pilgrimage, organized by the “Order of Malta, American Association, U.S.A.” You can learn more about the Order of Malta, American Association here including a brief description, “About the Order:”

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization. The 13,500 Knights and Dames remain true to its principles — nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick.

I am particularly grateful to the members of the Order of Malta from our diocese, many of whom I have been privileged to get to know during my time as bishop. Amongst the many charitable works that members of the Order participate in, here in our diocese are prison ministry, a “back-pack” program for schoolchildren in Paterson, and sponsoring a van to bring donations to our food pantry. They are also very generous supporters of our Diocesan Ministry Appeals, Catholic Charities, and their own, local parishes.

The Malades and Caregivers

Over the years, I had heard many things about “Lourdes” from those who had visited. They spoke of the “Grotto,” the candlelight processions, the sense of peace and prayerfulness. I vaguely recall some people speaking about the sick and the disabled who go to Lourdes, often with the hope of a miraculous cure. I think I had also heard something about the way the sick are cared for by volunteers, but none of that prepared me for, what I believe is one of the “miracles” that apparently takes place every day in Lourdes.

I learned that the main reason and purpose for the annual trip organized by the Order of Malta is to bring the sick and suffering to Lourdes and to bring them with a level of love and care that is truly inspiring. There is a lengthy and detailed process of recommendation and screening that takes place over the course of many months leading up to the pilgrimage. In our group of approximately 300, we had more than 40 “malades” (the French word for a person who is sick). A personal caregiver, usually a family member, accompanied each “malade.” The order covers all the costs of the trip for the malades and personal caregivers. Each malade also has a team of six or seven additional caregivers, volunteers, who push and pull the wheelchair, attend to personal needs, and provide medical care when necessary. There is also a “Medical Team,” mostly members of the Order, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, who give up their own time, cover the cost of their own trip, and offer daily care and attention to the malades and any other member of the group.

It is one thing for me to describe the “makeup” of the group and the purpose of the annual pilgrimage, but it is something else to be part of that group over the course of a week. From our gathering in the airport for departure through each “step” of the journey, I witnessed incredible patience, inspiring goodwill and optimism, and true “faith in action” in ways that I have been privileged to see on only a few other occasions in my lifetime. As I write these words, it occurs to me that I don’t think I heard one “complaint” or expression of negativity or frustration during the whole week. I did hear testimonies from those who had received or witnessed the gift of healing (physical, emotional, and spiritual). I heard words of hope and trust in God and our Blessed Mother. I also heard many, many words of gratitude, especially as some spoke at a gathering on our last night in Lourdes and as new friends said “farewell” as we left the airport, returning home. I now have a better understanding of the phrase that I had heard before, that “Lourdes continues to be a place of Miracles.”

Our Lady of Lourdes — A Mother’s care for her children

I am writing these words on Mother’s Day weekend, as we celebrate the Ascension and look forward to Pentecost. We believe that Jesus gave us His Mother to us, to be our Blessed Mother. She was there at Calvary, at the foot of the Cross. She was there with the Apostles at Easter and on the days following the Resurrection and she was there, with the Apostles, on Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the “birth” of the Church. In Guadalupe, Knock, Fatima, and countless other places, over the centuries, she has come to us, her children, to let us know of her Motherly love and concern, to call us to conversion, and call us “back” to her Son and the Sacraments.

Our Blessed Mother’s apparitions to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, in 1858, have given us a very special place, a beautiful shrine and, perhaps more importantly, a place where we can go to “visit” her. We know that we can call on her intercession, in prayer, at any time and in any place. Yet, as a Mother knows her children, it seems that our Blessed Mother knows (as her Son teaches us) that, sometimes, we need to “go away, to a quiet place.” I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to join the Order of Malta, to join and get to know the caregivers and malades, as we journeyed to Lourdes, a place of miracles, of healing, and of peace.

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