At Lourdes, I met a man born in 1917 and 21st century teens

In the first of a two-part column, John Arnold talks about his recent trip to Lourdes
At Lourdes, I met a man born in 1917 and 21st century teens
SPECIAL TIME: Cloyne Youth helpers Marie O Reilly and Ciara Sheehan with Bridie Mannix and Brancardier John Arnold at Lourdes

AS I start to pen these lines, just a few hours have elapsed since my return from Lourdes. I rose at 5am today to begin my journey home. I’ve just milked the cows for the first time in nearly a week.

To be honest, I’m wrecked, but boy, oh boy, wrecked in a great way. With over a decade now I’ve made this summer trip with Cloyne Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes and trying to encapsulate in a few thousand words what the last six days mean is a tough task.

The legs are swollen, arms ache, voice box almost silent but I’m hap’, hap’ happy again. We’ve been singing and dancing and praying and crying in the rain during these special days. Songwriter Jimmy McCarthy has written many memorable lines in his time but a few from his Bright Blue Rose encapsulate in some way the experience that is Lourdes for me and for so many;

And it is a holy thing, and it is a precious time

And it is the only way.

I am conscious that for people who have never visited Lourdes, words or pictures or a combination of both can never adequately describe the essence of the place. Yes, you do need to experience it but nevertheless I shall try to bring to life and imagination what ‘going to Lourdes’ is all about.

In a world where religion and religious practices seem to be under pressure from all sides, going on pilgrimage is the oldest yet newest thing. Maybe we are too hung up about the public practice of what we call ‘our faith’. Is craw thumping and the sackcloth and ash syndrome more important than, say, pure and simple Christianity, which can be simply summed up in the phrase ‘service to others, cheerfully given’? That’s what Lourdes is really about.

Over the last week I’ve spoken to literally hundreds of people, of all ages — from a man born in 1917 to vibrant teenagers who never lived in the last century. Some have been to the place where Bernadette Soubirous saw Our Lady in 1858 many, many times and for others, like the three score of Youth Helpers who were with us in Lourdes, it was their first visit. All were awe-struck and awe-full.

Since I returned to Lourdes as a mature — well, at least fully-grown — adult in 2007, I’ve been back a further 14 times. Much of a muchness, you may think, but no, every visit is different.

In the days leading up to the June 1 departure I felt I was never more organised. However, mechanical problems to two pieces of farm machinery caused me a lot of woe in the last two weeks of May, but with a little help from my friends, the machines were restored to mobility the evening before I left.

The previous weekend I had visited seven cemeteries all over north-east Cork wherein lie the remains of some great Lourdes comrades. I had also called to people who were travelling and some who had planned to do so but now couldn’t make the journey.

Sleep was fitful on the last night of the Month of May — ’twas for all the world like Christmas Eve for a child — a giddy mixture of anticipation and trepidation!

Thursday, June 1

My flight from Cork Airport was the second and was to carry 170 in total, including around 90 ‘Assisted Pilgrims’ bound for the Accueil (Hospital) in Lourdes. The flight time was 1.50pm but long before noon the passengers were arriving.

Old friends were hugged and greeted and new friendships quickly forged. In fairness to Cork Airport, things worked like clockwork— the check-in gates were open early as was the luggage intake.

As well as our human cargo, we had multitudinous boxes and crates of medical equipment, food and kitchen requisites from cornflakes and porridge to ham, lamb and jam. We took to the air at 3.20pm — a little late but nothing to worry about.

The dark and damp first day of an Irish June soon gave way to temperatures of close to 20C at Tarbes Airport just outside of Lourdes. It was great to be back!

The ultra-modern Accueil in Lourdes is a five storey, figure-of-eight shaped facility that can accommodate close on 1,000 patients. After loading all the luggage on two lorries we travelled in those vehicles to the hospital where we unloaded the entire luggage! We were there with our Assisted Pilgrims about 7.30pm. That was Thursday night and from then until Tuesday morning I spent more time in the Hospital than in the Agena, my hotel.

Our first night’s work done, we headed for our first visit to the Crowned Virgin Statue and the Grotto. Truly it was good to be here once more. Since 1858, how many million people have come here and yet the ‘pull’, the ‘draw’ is as powerful as ever. People ask me ‘Why is there no statue of Bernadette at the Grotto?’ That’s what she wanted. She knew she was the messenger, the conduit for Our Lady to speak and communicate to those who were prepared to listen.

On that balmy night last week, the peace just flowed over all present. With three friends I went to my hotel after 10pm. On our journey we were thrilled to meet the red-clad Cloyne Youth helpers who had arrived on a later flight. More than 60 teenagers, most here for the first time, and what an example of ‘service to others’ these young people proved to be. In bed by midnight, asleep by five past!

Friday June 2

Our first full day. Though our Opening Mass wasn’t until 10am, I was on ‘Team A’ of the Brancardiers (male helpers) and we were on Hospital Duty at 8am, so a 7am wake up call. After the Mass and photograph we had a Reconciliation ceremony at 1.45pm, a ‘drive-thru’ the Grotto at 5pm, and Marian Torchlight Procession at 9pm — with meals in between it was a busy day. Glorious sunshine bathed us for most of the day but the rain came in the night and came with a vengeance.

Today was the first chance our Youth helpers had to see Lourdes in daylight. Every year I say these young people are brilliant and then the following year they seem to be even better. Last week they were inspirational. As a group they had met in Blarney some time ago to get the low-down on what a Lourdes Pilgrimage was all about, but the theory and the reality can be so different. What a mighty bunch we had. Talk about multi tasking — the word ‘No’ wasn’t in their vocabulary.

There were two from most secondary schools in the Diocese of Cloyne but before the six days were up they were a united army of smiling, happy workers. During all the ceremonies on our opening day, they worked like Trojans. Under the blazing sun and lashing rain they did what was asked of them. They were bubbly, happy and so enthusiastic.

Our Marian procession was held in spilling rain. Two of the young girls were pushing and pulling a voiture (chariot) for a neighbour of mine. They barely knew each other a day earlier and now here they were in Lourdes with banter and craic and smiling faces. Every one of them was mighty and a credit to the parents that reared them.

Normally, the Procession is spectacular with thousands of candles being raised aloft each time the Ave Maria is sung, but on this night t’was hard to keep any candle alight with the rain. No-one complained.

The genial Kerryman, Bishop William Crean, led our Pilgrimage. His presence at the ceremonies allied to his humility and caring nature added greatly to our time in Lourdes.

We prayed and cried and laughed too when the occasion to do so arose.

There is pain and suffering in Lourdes but joy and laughter and friendship and huge camaraderie also.

(To be continued)


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