Ahead of this year’s Archdiocesan pilgrimage, Thomas from Animate’s gap year team explains what Lourdes means to him.
Later this month over 1,000 people from Liverpool Archdiocese will be heading down to southern France for our annual pilgrimage. This number will include some 500 young people, together with assisted pilgrims, priests, doctors, nurses and Hospitalité members. People from all walks of life travelling together for the same purpose: to experience the joy that comes from a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
Our Lady first appeared to Saint Bernadette at the grotto in Lourdes in 1858. My first experience of Lourdes came 150 years later in 2008. At the time I was 15 and though I had heard of Lourdes, I had little idea what it was all about – and no desire to actually go. So imagine my surprise when one day my mum told me that she had signed me up to travel to Lourdes on one of the nine youth coaches: Coach 2, the Knowsley coach.
I didn’t want to go. In my mind I’d conjured up an image of young people pushing wheelchairs around all day and then being forced to go to excessively long and dull services. It seemed boring to me, yet everyone who had already been to Lourdes had nothing but good things to say. I was curious (and didn’t want to let my mum down), so I decided I would go. It was the best decision that I’ve ever made.
Nothing could have prepared me for that first week in Lourdes. All my preconceived notions were obliterated during the Mass of welcome. I actually had fun! I thought to myself, ‘Maybe faith doesn’t have to be boring’. By the end of the week, I realised that it never had been boring; it was only my attitude that had made me think so. My faith had been waning and the Lourdes pilgrimage was exactly what I needed.
The things I experienced during that week in 2008 will stay with me for the rest of my life. I remember thinking that we young people were all so different, that it was likely we never would have spoken to each other outside of Lourdes. Yet here we all were: working together, praying together, laughing together.
One memory that stands out is of my first torchlight procession – I turned around and saw behind me a sea of yellow t-shirts, all holding candles and singing. I remember too my first visit to the grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette. Although the place is surrounded by thousands of pilgrims, inside it is so still and I was filled with such a sense of peace. Being able to see the spring from which Our Lady commanded us to drink was incredible.
Of course, the biggest part of our pilgrimage is the help we give to the assisted pilgrims. Throughout the week we spend so much time together, going to Mass, going shopping, having a cuppa and a chat. We’ll share stories, jokes, and generally just have a great time together.
After my first experience of Lourdes in 2008, I immediately knew that I’d be going back. And so the following year I was back with Coach 2 doing it all again. In total I spent seven years on Coach 2, with each year somehow being even better than the last. In 2015, I was finally too old for the coach and so joined the St Frai team – now the St Bernadette team – working even more closely with the assisted pilgrims, which I will be doing in Lourdes this year.
This year will be my tenth time in Lourdes. It’s remarkable how such a small, insignificant town in the foothills of the Pyrenees has had such a massive impact on my life and the lives of so many people around the world. To any young person reading this who is unsure about going to Lourdes, I strongly advise you to go for it. You won’t regret it.
Finally, I ask you to pray for me and for everyone else travelling to Lourdes this month. Pray that we experience the joy of pilgrimage, and that we find comfort and healing there.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
St Bernadette, pray for us.
The Lourdes Departure Mass takes place on Sunday 1 July at St Mary’s Lowe House, WA10 2BE, starting at 6.30pm.