It seems a long time ago that our pilgrimage to Lourdes was postponed. Indeed the world has changed a lot since the confirmation came back in April that we could not go on our annual pilgrimage this year.
During the lockdown period the coach leaders of the nine Liverpool Youth coaches held regular Zoom meetings, the fruit of which was a successful virtual pilgrimage, running for a week from Friday 24 July. I would be the first to admit that I was hesitant about the idea of a virtual pilgrimage. It seemed to me that a lot of what makes Lourdes special is the physical interaction: either between coaches, or between assisted pilgrims and young people. How could a virtual pilgrimage replace those interactions?
However, the virtual pilgrimage turned out to be far more of a positive experience than I could have hoped for. And for that a huge amount of credit must go to the leaders and staff of each coach who made time to plan and lead morning and night prayers for their coaches, led Stations of the Cross, celebrated distanced coach Masses, co-ordinated acts of local community-based service, and even added social time with quizzes and music nights.
As a whole Youth Pilgrimage, we had an opening Mass and a closing liturgy streamed via YouTube (both of which are still available on the Animate YouTube channel should you wish to watch now).
And while the virtual pilgrimage may have sated some of our Lourdes thirst, there was a still a feeling among staff members that it would be nice to try to get to the town itself. With lockdown having eased and travel now possible by the end of the pilgrimage week – and our taste whetted by the virtual week – the coach leaders put the word out among their staff teams that we might try to get to Lourdes at the last minute for the Feast of the Assumption.
Sadly, leaving things so late meant that most staff members had already made commitments for those few days in August. So an intrepid Gang of Four – comprising Canon Michael Fitzsimons (chaplain to coach 5), Fr Carl Mugan (chaplain to coach 9), Ben McMullen (leader of coach 5), and I – set off from the diocese to represent the Liverpool Youth Pilgrimage for a few days in Lourdes. It was a very ‘mini’ Youth Pilgrimage. And yes, I am aware that I am using the word ‘youth’ incredibly loosely here!
We decided to go overland on trains and set off from Wigan on a train to London, then to Paris, and finally on to Lourdes. It was an enjoyable journey and the time flew by. Before we knew it, we were heading into Lourdes station, seeing the candles at the grotto flicker as we arrived, and reminiscing about the ‘olden days’ when a great gathering of Youth would be at the station to welcome the assisted pilgrims.
The town was noticeably quieter than we would normally see it but there was still some life around. Some hotels were shut, as were some shops and bars. The owner of the hotel where we stayed described the virus as being disastrous for the town and it felt right to be trying, even in a very small way, to offer something back to a place which has given us so much over the years.
It was strange to walk the torchlight procession without worrying about being in lines of six. And there was often a feeling of missing something … and then realising we were now not responsible for 450 young people. We even had a daytime beer, which would be in complete breach of the Youth Pilgrimage rules!
We all felt it was a worthwhile visit. We saw the town as I hope we will never see it again. But even amid the turmoil wrought by the pandemic you could still feel the ‘specialness’ of the place: as hard to put your finger on as ever but that overwhelming feeling that there is something different about Lourdes. We lit candles for those who had asked for prayers and prayed especially for the young people of our Archdiocese.
Our original plan had been to be in Lourdes for the Feast of the Assumption. However, with some hotels closed and a booking made at the last minute, it was hard to find rooms for the actual weekend so we decided to leave Lourdes on the Friday and have a night in London on the way back.
Perhaps it is luck or perhaps it was Our Lady smiling down on us but as the week went by and rumours became stronger that France would become a country of quarantine, we waited to see if we would be affected. When news broke that France would be quarantined, we realised that our trains back would make us among the last people getting into the country before the deadline. Typical Youth Pilgrimage fashion – it would not be the same without some tension on the journey!
Before we left Lourdes we made the traditional trip to the Crowned Virgin and prayed that we, as an Archdiocese, would be back in Lourdes next year. And hopefully with far greater numbers than four. If you can, spare a Hail Mary today that we might be able to return there in full force next year.