John Arnold: I'm lonesome and sad on the eve of our planned pilgrimage to Lourdes

Tomorrow John Arnold should have been heading on The Annual Cloyne Pilgrimage to Lourdes. Here he reflects on what this special place means to him.... and so many others
John Arnold: I'm lonesome and sad on the eve of our planned pilgrimage to Lourdes

VOLUNTEERING: John Arnold and Niall Murphy taking their candle to the Lourdes Grotto on a previous trip.

WE usually get a new diary to put near the phone in the hall each December. Over the Christmas and New Year holiday I’d often spend a bit of time marking special dates for the year ahead. Birthdays, Anniversaries, dates for Bartlemy Races, Munster Championship games, All Ireland Final Dates (Hope springs eternal!) and of course Lourdes.

Back in the month of May in 2007 I was still celebrating - well sort of anyway, my two score and tenth birthday in February of that year. A world cruise might have been nice but for the price and my fear of water and waves in particular. The Annual Cloyne Pilgrimage to Lourdes was less than three weeks away but I enquired, a place was still available so I decided to go. I’d been there once before as a fourteen year old in 1971 on a thirty six hour ‘Overnight Pilgrimage’ in the month of March. I went back to Lourdes in June of 2007 and I’ve returned there over twenty times since - with the Pilgrimage in the summer and on my own in mid-winter.

So each year when the calendar arrived the departure and return dates for the Cloyne Pilgrimage would be written in. Since 2007 Lourdes has caused me to miss vital club games of my own Bride Rovers and Cork games too. I love hurling in all it’s variations and age groups yet wild horse wouldn’t stop me from going to Lourdes each year if I’m able to go. The dates for each Pilgrimage going to Lourdes from Ireland were kinda ‘set in stone’ for years. Cloyne went on June 1 and came back on June 6 when Lismore and Waterford went out followed by Cork and Ross and so on. It’s been slightly changed with a few years and now the Cloyne Pilgrimage goes each year ‘on the Friday closest to the 1st of June’. This year of 2020 the Friday closest to June 1 is tomorrow May 29.

There’s a beautiful word in Irish ‘sceitimini’ which can be translated as ‘rapturous excitement’ -well friends it’s the closest way I have of describing how I’d normally be feeling on this eve of departure to Lourdes day.

I must tell ye that in Lourdes over the years I have met literally thousands of people - I say that truthfully because I know that every summer trip I make means endless hours of talk with people, many of whom I’ll never meet again.

Why do atheists and agnostics go to Lourdes? Obviously it’s not any religious belief that takes them to the Shrine in the South of France -maybe curiosity you may say. Yeah, perhaps they go just to see what it’s all about and experience the aura or whatever pervades Lourdes. The strange thing about Lourdes is it has very little to do with religion! You may say that’s an awful thing to say but it’s what I think.

People don’t go to Lourdes because they are told or directed to. Travelling to Lourdes is not a basic tenet or principle of the Roman Catholic faith or of any other creed or caste either. Yes Lourdes is about faith and hope but it’s not really structured - but you say Pilgrimages are organised and so they are and millions have travelled each year and hopefully will do so again in the future but Lourdes, despite the throngs, is so, so personal.

Lourdes goes far deeper than religion. Bernadette was the most unlikely person for Our Lady to appear to. Isn’t there a profound message in that also? Never pre judge people - accept them at face value. In my humble opinion no two people are touched or moved in the same way in Lourdes. Yes those of us that have fallen madly, hopefully in love with the place time after time experience that ‘wow’ factor but to each his or her own.

Getting back to those who say they don’t believe in any God or doubt the existence of anything spiritual - and I have nothing only respect for their views, they still appreciate Lourdes. People have told me that they cannot understand or even attempt to fathom how a place which manifests so much human suffering and illness can be blanketed with love and peace and tranquillity. Surely suffering and pain on the one hand and peace and love on the other are mutually exclusive? I suppose it’s simplistic to say ‘Ah yes that’s the miracle of Lourdes’ but in essence there’s truth in that statement. I don’t fully understand it either. All I know is that when one is there you cannot really properly express it in words. I try, I try but sometimes things that are experienced are just that.

I have been in Lourdes in packed, crowded June days and I’ve been at the Grotto ‘alone, all alone’ on December nights and the sense of peace and calm is the same. Oh what memories I have of this day, the day before we go. You couldn’t call it the calm before the storm as usually the last two weeks of May are just a whirlwind of happiness and craziness. People travelling as our special guests have to be visited, last minute Form-filling and passport problems have to be sorted - just wonderful problems to have!

Normally on ‘today’, the day before we fly I’d visit the graves of eight to ten special people I have befriended through Lourdes. Packing my case would usually be done after midnight. The morning we fly I usually collect two hams in Fermoy - you can’t bate an Irish ham sandwich and that goes for Lourdes as much as a Munster Final!

Meeting our Assisted Pilgrims in Cork Airport each year is so, so special. The 80 to 100 we take each year stay in the Hospital or Accueil in Lourdes for the duration of the Pilgrimage. Some are old, some are infirm, some suffer from serious conditions but for the Pilgrimage they are our special guests, our royalty. In Lourdes we sing, pray, talk, laugh and cry with them and today I think especially of those who were really looking forward to travelling with us tomorrow.

The fun and laughter we have each year in Lourdes is just mighty. When the Assisted Pilgrims arrive at the Hospital on the first evening it’s just organised chaos but in fairness we have a system of getting maybe 300 pieces of luggage to 60 or 70 rooms. Each year we meet old friends and make new ones. Of course familiar faces are missed too and we always think of those who were part and parcel of previous pilgrimages and are gone, some “long, long before their time”. The sense of friendship and togetherness forged by pilgrims is stunning and it doesn’t end in Cork Airport on the return flight.

No Lourdes is indeed a special place and those of us who are privileged to work as volunteers there are the lucky ones. I am lonesome today and a bit sad too thinking of all those great people who have made our Pilgrimage so special over the years. Because we cannot be in Lourdes for the next few days a ‘Virtual Pilgrimage’ has been organised. The full programme can be accessed on the Cloyne diocese website by simply Googling “Cloyne Diocese Website” (or by going to the web address which is cloynediocese.ie) and clicking on the links to the various churches from where the ceremonies are being broadcast. The itinerary allows you how to virtually attend the Pilgrimage by watching the services live online from around the Cloyne Diocese from Saturday next May 30 until Wednesday June 3. We won’t be physically there but our hearts and our thoughts will be in Lourdes as we’ll retrace our steps once more.

Just recently I ‘discovered’ an exquisite Lourdes song ‘I Light A Candle For You’. I spoke to the song’s writer Aine Roche, last week just to thank her. Aine is from the Ferns Diocese and her words are the essence of what Lourdes means to me.

Now your candle burns lower

Midst the flowers of the May

It’s flame shining brightly

As sunrise lights up day

I send healing good wishes

And all my love too

As I stand at the candle

The candle I light for you.

I light a candle for you

That will burn oh so bright

To join hundreds of candles

Burning soft in the night

If heaven meets earth

Then here is where they do

In Lourdes at the Grotto

I light a candle for you

In Lourdes at the Grotto

I light a candle for you.

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