Laughter, tears, reflection: all in that magical place, Lourdes

In the second part of his column, John Arnold recalls a recent trip to Lourdes
Laughter, tears, reflection: all in that magical place, Lourdes
Cloyne Youth Helpers who attended the diocese 2017 pilgrimage to Lourdes this month, with Bishop Crean, Tom Conway President, Fr Ned Gould and Youth Leaders.

ON Trinity Sunday last weekend, to illustrate the meaning of the Trinity Canon, Michael Leamy told a little story at Bartlemy Mass.

He recalled times past when those receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation were asked questions by the Bishop on the day of the ceremony. Failure to give a correct answer could mean public humiliation, Confirmation could be refused and the ‘failed’ candidate might then have to go to a neighbouring parish — and hope they’d get an easier question!

Anyway, the Bishop asked this particular girl about the Trinity. She kind of half mumbled her answer and the Bishop said: “I don’t understand,” to which the girl replied: “That’s alright my Lord Bishop, ’tis a mystery — you’re not supposed to understand.”

Well, Lourdes is a bit like that. It’s really a mystery — the unknown, indefinable something that is ever-present in the town at the foot of the Pyrenees. Here is Part Two of my Lourdes Diary...

Saturday June 3

We had mass at Lourdes Grotto at 9.45am. It was a grand time and meant those staying in the hospital didn’t have to be up at all hours. It had rained the night before and as we made our way from the Agena Hotel through the streets, the rain was still falling — the weather forecasters had got it spot on.

Rain or sun, hail or snow, the pilgrimage activities go ahead in Lourdes and with the covered voitures available to all our Assisted Pilgrims no-one was going to get double pneumonia.

With our Brancardiers, handmaidens, nurses, doctors and enthusiastic youth helpers all assisting, we were waiting in the rain for an earlier mass to finish. The Grotto Mass is one of the highlights for everyone of the Lourdes pilgrimage.

Since I came home, I heard the English atheist and thinker Richard Dawkins on the radio. He has a theory that faith is dangerous and stated: “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” Reflecting now on the faith of our group as they attended that Mass at the Grotto, I am amazed that ‘lack of evidence’, as Dawkins calls it, hasn’t diminished or dented their faith in any way.

Some say miracles don’t happen in places like Lourdes — calling miraculous cures ‘spontaneous recovery’ — but I really believe that life-changing events do happen here.

Canon Donal O’Mahony gave us a lovely simple homily on being in this special place where suffering and smiling, heartbreak and happiness co-exist. After the mass, with the rain still falling, it was back to the hospital where we had one of many impromptu ‘sessions’ of music, song and dance before lunch.

In our hotel, and I suspect in all the others where Cloyne pilgrims stayed, we had mighty banter and Irish craic at meal times. Laughter is a great medicine and a mighty tonic and I can tell ye we got and gave a mighty prescription of it in Lourdes this year! With no let up in the rain, wise heads decided to combine our two afternoon Pilgrimage activities — the Stations of the Cross and the Eucharistic Procession — into a single event, which took place in the huge, underground Basilica of Pius X.

The cavernous structure was ideal for this purpose. There were perhaps 1,500 present in the edifice built the year I was born, six decades ago — it can comfortably hold 25,000.

In October, 2011, when a good friend of mine and of Lourdes, Jim Conway, died, I took a stone from his grave in Ballinacourty cemetery in Lisvernane in his beloved Glen of Aherlow. I kept it for eight months and in June, 2012, on our Cloyne Pilgrimage I had a little ceremony on the bank of the River Gave in Lourdes — across from the Grotto. We said prayers and sang and then had the reading from Ecclesiastes.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, ending with the lines: A time to gather stones together

A time to cast away stones and then the stone was cast into the Gave, to sink and remain there forever as a permanent link between a final resting place and Lourdes... a very special place.

On the Saturday, a knot of us gathered in tears by the river once more to remember and entwine the memories of Teresa, Diarmaid, Eileen, Peg and Siobhan with Lourdes. It was very emotional but special. Last December when I visited Lourdes I spent hours at this spot remembering those we’ve prayed for here in the last six years.

On Saturday night I visited the Little Flower hostelry for the first time — the singing, storytelling, even dancing a set in the rain were mighty!

Sunday June 4

We were on duty in the hospital by 8am — it was noticeable that crowds in the Domain were far greater than earlier in the week. For those of our party attending the International (I think about 25 countries) Mass in the underground basilica, for the first time there was a huge ‘wow’ factor. Between bishops and priests there were at least 80 celebrants.

After this mass, a group of us made our way to the Poor Clare cemetery near the bridge to pray at the graveside of a special person. Sister Marie Thérèse O’Connell, who died in June, 2015 after spending over five decades with the Pauvre Clarisses here in Lourdes. Despite the spitting rain we had time to take our Assisted Pilgrims up town shopping after lunch. Once more the Cloyne youth in their distinctive red shirts came into their own. Rain or no rain, these boys and girls were willing to push and shove, lift and carry, while smiling and laughing all the time.

During our time in Lourdes I surely spoke to 30 or 40 of them and they were thrilled to be helping. Our challenge is to get them back again ... maybe in 2019 or 2020!

Sunday evening saw a poignant and memory-full mass for the deceased members of the Cloyne Hospitalité, the people who blazed the trail and set the example we all try to follow. Fr John Ryan, the celebrant, mentioned the names of all those great people who gave of themselves tirelessly to Lourdes.

I had time to take a candle to the burner across the river from the Grotto after supper. I remembered all who had asked me to pray for them. I thought too of people who had planned to be with us this year, one had died and illness kept others from coming, but tonight they were all in my thoughts and prayers.

As the rain eased off we had a Holy Hour — well, two actually, one for the pilgrims in St Joseph’s church while our assisted pilgrims had their own ‘quiet time’ in the hospital dining room.

Then it was party time for 100-year-old Ned Hartnett from Kanturk who has been coming to Lourdes with 30 years. He’s an amazing man. Our Matron Geraldine McCarthy paid fulsome tribute to him before the cake was produced. Just to show how his memory is as sharp as ever Ned recited the eight verses of Young Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott! A quiet night at the Little Flower so I hit the pillow before 1am.

Monday June 5

Tempis fugit: our last full day here for this pilgrimage. At 10am we had the Anointing Mass in the Church if St Bernadette. I was one of the privileged Brancardier ‘on duty’ for this. The Sacrament of the Sick is said to be reserved for the old and infirm but only God knows what infirmity anyof us has. I think that on a very moving and uplifting occasion such as this , the more people, young and old, that avail of this special gift of the church the better. The anointing of the head and hands is amazing. Like the baths which we availed of in the afternoon the anointing is so profound and sacred, just amazing.

I spoke to many of our youth helpers after the baths — they were stunned at the feeling of exhilaration. We had a party in the evening for the assisted pilgrims, a happy and fun-filled time with outstanding talent on display.

Sunday evening was crazy busy. Back to the hotel for ‘the last supper’, packing, visiting the grotto.

Four of us meet always on the last evening by the Crowned Virgin statue and vow to return, God willing, next year. I spent an hour at the Grotto as darkness fell on Lourdes. Lucky to be here or what? Words can never truly describe the inner feelings of peace, awe and mystery.

I knelt on the spot where little ernadette Soubirous had fallen to her knees on February 11, 1858.

Tuesday June 6

We had a 4am alarm call so we’d be in the hospital by 5am. It was an early start but everyone was in great form — glad to be on the way home after a lovely time here in Lourdes, and we hardly noticed the rain.

Kisses and hugs and tears for many of our patients from the young people. Up, up and away — Cork, here we come. The wonderful 2017 Cloyne Pilgrimage to Lourdes is gone but never forgotten.

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