Stirring spirit and soul... why Lourdes always melts my heart

Over the past dozen years John Arnold has been back to Lourdes, 20 times. In his column today, he writes about his latest visit there
Stirring spirit and soul... why Lourdes always melts my heart

TEAM WORK: John Arnold, fourth from left, with some of the people on the Cloyne Pilgrimage to Lourdes

“HAVE fun.” That’s what the Bishop said to us last Saturday morning in Lourdes.

It was the first full day of the 2019 Cloyne pilgrimage to the town of the Marian Grotto in the South of France.

I suppose most of us would associate a pilgrimage with prayer, penance and religiosity and lots of walking in silence, and that’s truly part of it.

The very idea or concept of a pilgrimage comes down to us from the mists of time. No-one can definitively say when and where the first ever pilgrimage took place.

We can think of the Holy Land and Mecca as places where our distant ancestors tramped over mountain, hill and dale to reach their destinations. Those were arduous, yes, even dangerous journeys, but thousands, nay millions, made them.

My grandmother, Nora Twomey, used say that ‘fasting and prayer are good for the sinner but the working man must have his dinner’ — in other words, there is a time and a place for everything. Those were wise words well spoken.

I pen these words at 10pm on Monday on a dodgy internet connection in the foyer of the Agena Hotel in Lourdes. Outside the rain is teeming down but to paraphrase a Christmas song, ‘Let it rain, let it rain, let it pour’.

On this damp night under the Pyrenees, there are close on 800 weary Irish pilgrims preparing to return to the Emerald Isle and truly we have taken the advice of our Bishop.

We came to Lourdes on May 31, the last day of the Month of Our Lady. Traditionally, Cloyne came here from June 1-6 but things are changing everywhere and the world of pilgrimage aviation is no different.

To celebrate my 50th birthday 12 years ago, I bridged a 40-year gap by coming to Lourdes. So in the first five decades of my life I came here once and in the last dozen years I’ve been back 20 times, as I usually go each November or December again.

At this stage I’ve given up trying to fathom out what really draws me back year after year. So here I am once more back in a place I truly love, and I can say, Lourdes loves me.

On Friday last, four flights from Cork Airport brought our pilgrims to Tarbes Airport outside of Lourdes. Three were delayed by one to four hours, but luckily my flight at 2pm was just minutes behind schedule.

This was the most important of the four flights, not because John Arnold was on it, but it was the plane with our 87 Assisted Pilgrims. People often ask me what is the difference between a tour to Lourdes and a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Well, the answer is simple really, on our pilgrimage we come as helpers, young and old, men and women, students and pensioners, and the ethos of our trip is to help and assist those who travel as our guests.

Some are very sick, whilst others are just elderly and weary, and it a joy to be able to serve these wonderful people.

When we landed at Tarbes — it seems like ages ago now — the Alba Star pilot told us t’would be 25 degrees; well, he was right. It was blazing, absolutely brilliant when we hit that runway.

My feeling on reaching the town of Lourdes is always the same, a mixture of elation, emotion and pride.

As a ten-year-old boy I came here — or was brought here by my widowed mother — a kind of rite of passage which was repeated for the five children in the family. Here I am once more and the tears of joy flow freely.

Friday evening was like gathering day at Puck Fair as the assisted pilgrims settled in to the St James floor in the hospital — in reality ‘tis more like a guest house or a hotel — as one woman said to me, home was never like this!

Arriving in Lourdes at early evening was mighty as our Pilgrims had time to settle in to their place of residence at their ease. Many’s the time it was late at night when we got here but Friday last was just perfect.

We had our Opening Mass on Saturday morning last in St Bernadette’s Church close by the hospital, with our Bishop, William Crean, preaching a Homily of Welcome.

Many people don’t realise that Bernadette Soubirous — the girl who became a saint — was a fun-loving person. She suffered a lot during her short life but her impish laugh and sense of humour was ever-present. Once, when in the convent in Nevers, a reporter knocked at the entrance door. Bernadette opened it and the visitor said he wished to speak with the ‘holy girl from Lourdes’ — there were very few cameras so he had no idea of what she looked like. She told him to wait while she’d check in the Convent.

Back she came to the door after a while, telling the reporter: ‘It must be me you’re looking for!’ — and she laughed loudly!

Bishop Crean stressed the importance of having fun on our Pilgrimage while we prayed and walked and went in procession, and, oh lads, let me tell ye, we had some fun. The Bishop also blessed the hands of all those who had come to work and help with the sick and elderly with us.

Our first full day was crazy busy with a programme that lasted all of 14 hours! After our Opening Mass at 9am we had the Pilgrimage Photograph snapped in broiling heat in the massive Basilica Square.

For the 700 or so people on the Pilgrimage staying in hotels around the town, the activities of the five days meant they returned to their hotel for all meals. Us Brancardiers (male) and Handmaidens (female), helpers and youth volunteers did likewise, but we timed everything around what was going on in the hospital.

Each year we say it, but it’s always true, these teenagers are just wonderful. Clad in red they help in every possible way with the invalid group we have. With smiling faces and willing hands and an inability to say ‘No’, they are a marvel to behold.

By Saturday afternoon, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees. We had our Confession/Reconciliation service at 2.30pm. Do people need to go to confession? Why not? Baring the soul and having a chat about whatever might be bothering someone is no bad thing.

They might call it ‘mindfulness’ nowadays but the serenity it brings has to be seen to be believed.

The heart of Lourdes is the Grotto, where on February 11, 1858, the young Bernadette first saw Our Lady. By mid-afternoon our group were savouring the passage through the Grotto, touching the cold, black rock face, getting a glimpse of the spring that every day yields more than 20,000 gallons of water.

The Grotto itself is plain and simple, unadorned and bare, but it’s still the ‘oldest yet newest thing’ and the spot that draws millions each year from the four corners of the world.

Our Marian or ‘Torchlight’ at 9pm on Saturday was massive — estimates say around 8,000 attended. In the midst of all the prayers the candles are raised in unison when the ‘Ave’ is sung.

It never fails to stir my soul and my very being.

To be continued next week.

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