I walked, talked, laughed, prayed and cried: and also sat in silence

Over the past dozen years John Arnold has been back to Lourdes, 20 times. Here is the second part of his column, on his most recent visit there
I walked, talked, laughed, prayed and cried: and also sat in silence
Pictured in Lourdes are Fionn Allen and his 3rd cousin, twice removed, John Arnold.

I STILL find it hard to imagine that they built the Underground Basilica in Lourdes back in 1957, the year I was born ! With its massive concrete beams and huge timber rafters, the building is in the shape of an upturned boat. The ‘official’ capacity is 25,000 — that’s seated, some say over 40,000 could actually fit in.

I met a woman last week who said she was three times in Lourdes, travelling on her own, and she’d never seen it. From the outside it looks like a grass-covered mound with little indication of what’s underneath.

That’s where we were on Sunday week last for the International Mass at half-nine. Even at that early hour the sun was high in the sky as the temperature was soaring again. It was a grand cool respite underground where it’s constant both winter and summer in terms of heat.

All those in wheelchairs and voitures (chariots/ wagons) had to be in place well before the start of the ceremony so the Brancardiers and Handmaidens on duty were at the Hospital before 7.30. Getting up at half-six or seven for old and infirm people is no bed of roses but our special guests never complained, just went along with all the Pilgrimage programme, smiling.

Some of us who’d often been to the International Mass previously attended a 9 o clock English Mass in the top Basilica and were back in the underground at Communion time. My team of Brancardiers were on ‘Hospital Duty’ on Sunday from 12.30 until 5.30. This entails just being in the hospital keeping an eye on things and helping the nurses if and when required. An early lunch at noon in the Agena Hotel was the order of the day and back then to the Hospital.

Our hotel this year had at least fifty or sixty Cloyne pilgrims staying as well as the male youth helpers so the craic was always good there. No shortage of food either as Irish born Fionnuala is in charge as owner/manager, we never had to ask for ‘more’ — if the plate was emptied quickly it was replenished just as fast!

Because we were ‘on duty’ in the afternoon we missed out on two Pilgrimage activities that Sunday. Each year a special Mass is celebrated to remember and give thanks to the deceased members of the Cloyne Hospitalité — those who have served as volunteers here since the first Cloyne Pilgrimage in the 1950’s. ‘Moving’ and ‘absolutely beautiful’ were two of the descriptions I heard of the Canon Donal O Mahony led Mass. A new innovation this year was the ‘Book of Remembrance’, a beautifully bound volume which contains the names of the deceased members. They loved and served Lourdes so well.

Because of the intense afternoon heat the 5 o clock Eucharistic Procession was held in the underground Basilica also. With so many of our patients out and about we had a quiet afternoon in the hospital chatting with those who had stayed behind. Visitors are always coming and going — we had two French based English nuns who had driven 75 kilometres to visit a lady from Fermoy that they met in England decades ago.

Very few could imagine me singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ anywhere, never mind in Lourdes but strange things do happen! About ten years ago I brought a stone from the grave of a friend of mine here to Lourdes. Jim was a great devotee of Lourdes and loved the place dearly. I thought that by linking his final resting place in Ireland with Lourdes ‘twould create a kind of special bond.

In 1866, six years after the apparitions, Bernadette Soubirious stood at the bank of the Gave river — straight across from the Grotto. At this spot she prayed and then bade farewell to Lourdes forever. For me it’s a special, sacred spot and that’s where we gather when we need to for the Stones Ceremony. With prayer and song and the words of Ecclesiastes we come together.

To everything there is a season

A time to weep and a time to laugh

A time to mourn and a time to dance

A time to speak and a time for silence

A time to sew and a time to rip apart

A time for peace and a time for war

A time for love and a time for hate

A time to gather stones together and a time to cast stones away.

On last Sunday night week a little knot of us came together. We had stones from cemeteries in Mallow, Aghern, Conna and Cobh. Friends and family of Toni Noonan, Kathleen Hoare, Mag Flynn and Stuart Griffin prayed and cried and sang in this special place and then, all together, it was ‘time to cast stones away’ and we did.

Stuart was a bright, bubbly and happy young man who loved Lourdes. Despite his frailties he absolutely oozed joy and charisma when he came here. He died in January. He was a huge Liverpool fan — now, people that know me understand I’d rather watch paint dry on a wall before I could endure the 90 minutes of a soccer ball being kicked around, and maybe no score. However after Stuart’s wake in Cobh I said I’d sing his favourite song in his memory and I did. You’ll never Walk Alone is truly a song of hope and that’s what Lourdes is all about.

In Lourdes we are in a world of our own yet home is always on our minds. We were just a few days away but news of awful traffic accidents, sudden illness and unexpected deaths came across the miles to us. So many people had asked me to pray and light a candle for them in Lourdes.

On Sunday, I had some quiet time at the Grotto. Even since 2007 the area all around the Grotto has changed so much. Tree planting, new seating and a slightly sloped surface have enhanced the place. Despite these improvements and the moving of the candle burners across the river and the Baths getting a facelift the essence of the place is the same. Just a statue of Our Lady, none of Bernadette, adorns the rock-face. There’s a tile on the ground showing the spot where young Bernadette knelt on February 11, 1858, the day of the first apparition.

A double lined silver marking traces the original route of the meandering stream that snaked through the boggy ground in the 1850’s. There’s nothing ornate, no gilded fittings or fancy surrounds. It’s simple place of peace and prayer- but what a place.

Monday, June 3 was a bank holiday at home in Ireland. In Lourdes we had an event-filled gloriously warm day — the first time I saw people suffer from sun stroke. Even at half seven as we walked from our hotel to the Domain the sun was high in a blue, clear sky. Our Grotto Mass was on at quarter to ten and by nine o clock our procession of vehicles, pulled and pushed, was waiting for the 8 o clock Mass to end at the Grotto. Bishop Crean walked amongst our assisted pilgrims with a smile and handshake and words of encouragement for all. The Pilgrimage from the Diocese of Kilmore which encompasses Cavan and bits of a few neighbouring counties was also in Lourdes so they were with us for the Grotto Mass. As well as Bishop Crean we had retired Bishop Padraig O Donoghue a native of Mourneabbey, with us as well as two Bishops from Kilmore.

Mass at the Grotto is always so special and as our group basked in the sunshine one could sense the joy and peace emanating from so many. Strange isn’t it that in a place where suffering and pain abound, happiness, serenity and contentment are there also. That’s Lourdes for you.

I spoke to many of our red-clad youth helpers this morning, they were all just gobsmacked with the experience they were having. For 16 and 17 year olds doing tasks with elderly and infirm people who they never met before must be a daunting prospect but they never flinched. Take a bow, boys and girls, and also the families, schools and communities that have formed them.

When Mass was over a group of us with Bishop Padraig went to the graveside of Mallow born Poor Clare nun Sister Marie Thérèse O Connell. She died here in Lourdes in 2014 having spent close on 60 years in Lourdes. Any Irish pilgrims walking over the nearby bridge probably thought they were dreaming as ‘The Banks’ wafted up on the warm noon air!

After lunch we had time reserved at the baths for our assisted pilgrims, 2 o clock was our time but Kilmore had the same time so major delays ensued. In the broiling afternoon heat several fell, and I mean that literally, fell victim to dreaded sun-stroke. Two were hospitalised but all recovered quickly.

After having a bath I headed back to the underground where we had a ‘practise’ for the following day’s Anointing Mass. I missed the Stations of the Cross — couldn’t be in two places at the one time! I sang a few songs on Monday night at The Little Flower.

The Anointing Mass was, as always, so special. The Anointing ceremony effects everyone differently. For me it’s a reminder of our human condition and the value of health and life, we should never take either for granted.

In Lourdes this year I walked and talked, laughed, prayed and cried, pushed wheelchairs and sat in silence on a few occasions.

At half past four on Wednesday morning four of us pulled our cases along as we headed to the hospital for the journey home. We joined hands again at the Crowned Virgin Statue — ‘Thanks for being here and please God and His Mother that we’ll return’.

Now we are home and happy to be

Telling of places we’ve happened to see

But there’s one little town we’ll never forget

It’s Lourdes, the village of St Bernadette.

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