Oblate Youth Service - Lourdes
LOURDES 2014 - OYS
"We throw ye in at the deep end but I'm yet to see someone sink" - Ger O'Sullivan.
This is all we got out of Mr O' Sullivan after weeks and weeks of hassling him as to what we could expect in Lourdes. That and the classic "Lads, don't worry about it. You'll be grand!" We were told that it's just one of those things you have to experience for yourself and now I've volunteered to do the impossible and describe this indescribable.
Inevitably, I find myself struggling to find the words to do this magnificent Lourdes Pilgrimage justice. I don’t think that there are any, or else I just haven’t looked hard enough. I struggle to find a way to describe to my friends how sitting around a hospital with a few elderly pilgrims drinking tea, taking them to masses and services and going up to the town shopping was the best week of my life. I’ve encountered many perplexed faces after telling the lads that instead of ‘Maga’ or Crete that the Lourdes Pilgrimage was my 6th year holiday of choice. Of course there are lots of stories. The stories I have are amazing and I’ll treasure them for the rest of my days. I can tell my friends the story of the Torchlight Procession where, by virtue of my average heightedness, I was lucky enough to be chosen to carry the statue of the Virgin Mary.
The Torchlight Procession is a nightly occurrence in Lourdes and it is an absolute spectacle. Thousands of the pilgrims come together and each is given their own torch. They line up behind a statue of Mary and walk around the grand Sanctuary that lies before the stunning Rosary Basilica before the statue is placed on the small stage at the front of the church and the pilgrims gather, torches in hand, for a prayer service. On this particular night it was the turn of the Oblates Youth Service, which we were privileged to be a part of, to lead the precession.
On being asked, the group of us carrying the statue got in place a while before the Procession began and as night fell, the pilgrims arrived. We had been warned that this would be a bit different but I was blown away by the passion I saw. As people walked by there were tears, trembling hands and babies being lifted towards the statue. Everybody who walked by seemed captivated by the statue and only then did I understand the sheer power of Faith and the significance of our job. I figured that dropping the Virgin Mary in front of all these devout Catholics wouldn’t go down too well!
When all the pilgrims had fallen in behind us, our group, a few thousand people strong, got moving. The candles were lit and we set off down the Sanctuary, away from the church. It was tough going. I mean, the statue was really heavy. As well as that, the timing of the four lads carrying the statue had to be absolutely in sync or else the whole statue wobbled and caused momentary mass hysteria and drew a chorus of gasps from the crowd. It was a lot harder than I’d imagined and my shoulders and legs burned. The level of concentration needed was immense and I was feeling drained.
Then we turned the corner of the Sanctuary. This was the most powerful image I've ever seen in my life. As we turned the corner, the stunning Rosary Basilica was in her full glory, lighting up a glorious shade of gold against the backdrop of the jet black French sky. However, it was what I saw coming down the Sanctuary that absolutely took my breath away; the group of pilgrims, a few thousand in total, following the statue. Each had a candle in hand and it was simply astonishing.
I no longer felt tired, my shoulders no longer ached but I was spurred on and reinvigorated by the resounding hope and devotion of these pilgrims. And that’s the influence they have. No matter how tired you are or how bad you think things are these pilgrims show such a romantic readiness for hope that one can’t help but be inspired by them. Whereas the walk down the Sanctuary facing into the darkness couldn’t end quickly enough, I never wanted the walk towards the Basilica and the pilgrims to end.
This is the kind of story that I tell people when they ask about Lourdes. This Torchlight Procession, the stories from the Royal Albert pub with the OYS and the day that I spent working in the famous Lourdes baths which are credited with an astounding 69 recognised miracles.
However, although these are all enviable experiences and I’m sure the memories will stay with me forever, they’re not only what sums up the Lourdes experience for me. For me the Lourdes experience is a lot simpler than these, perhaps, more ‘story worthy ‘events. I found that the most enjoyable and rewarding occasions in Lourdes were the simple day to day experiences in the wards of the Accueil hospital, in the town and in the Grotto. Giving your time to sit and chat to another is truly what Lourdes is all about.
The wards are a wonderful place with an unmatchable buzz about the place which comes from the nurses, the volunteers and the pilgrims themselves. Their almost euphoric moods are infectious and no matter how little sleep you got the night before or how much walking you’d done the day previous. I found it hard to be tired in the presence of these people.
The wards are where you get to know the pilgrims and drink endless amounts of tea. Simply sitting in a ward with VIP or a few and hearing the stories of their lives, their jokes and their songs is so enjoyable. They had a seemingly endless collection! Whereas others were simply happy to sit there in silence and appreciate the company. Although one tries to get to know as many of the pilgrims as possible, I found it impossible not to gravitate towards two in particular and spent countless hours in their wards. You grow attached to these people very quickly and I was really taken aback by their gratitude and how quickly they became trusting and open with us. We found ourselves running down to the Accueil every morning to be there to greet them after their breakfasts and seeing them leave was a bit of a tear-fest!
Afternoons when there was nothing timetabled were spent bringing the VIPs shopping around the town, sitting in cafés and just relaxing with them, embracing the holiday feel to the place. At night when the day was done I often found myself down at the Grotto, which I found a really moving place to get some invaluable quite time in a place that is so hectic throughout the daytime. It was the ideal place to relax and reflect and the Grotto holds a special place in my heart.
In trying to keep this short and sweet I’ve not mentioned the social aspect to Lourdes, but it’s not all work and no play. As part of the OYS we are placed in a smaller group with two leaders who had a few years experience in Lourdes. We tried to meet up once a day and express any concerns, worries or share some of the many hilarious stories we had accumulated. We shared countless laughs and tears in a place that really intensifies all emotions and I think everyone there went through the full spectrum from utopia to dystopia through the course of the week. Every night the entire OYS group met up in the Royal Albert and this was always the perfect way to unwind at the end of a long day’s work.
Trips like this don't just happen and I'd like to thank Ger O'Sullivan for his weeks of organising and preparing us before Lourdes and weeks of helping us get the most out of the trip once we'd returned with thought-provoking questions and warm reflections. I would also like to thank Emma Brennan and Marguerite Redmond for their work with us. I know that I speak for all the lads when I say that they were an assuring presence for us in times of uncertainty and were always accessible. They encouraged us to engage in group reflections and fully appreciate the experience while we were there which I think the whole group found beneficial. They went above and beyond their call of duty and, for that, we are very grateful. I also want to thank Eoghan O'Flaherty and the rest of the OYS for bringing us on the Pilgrimage and being warm and welcoming throughout as well as great craic.
I cannot write this piece without, of course, mentioning the other Belvo lads I had the pleasure of working with throughout the week: Aaron, Andrew, Conor, Colin, Eoin, Jack, James, Jamie, Mark, Ronan and Sam, it was a pleasure and a privilege to share this experience with them.