John Arnold: We laughed, prayed, cried and sang on pilgrimage to Lourdes

John Arnold returned to Lourdes for the 25th time this month. Here he recalls that special visit
John Arnold: We laughed, prayed, cried and sang on pilgrimage to Lourdes

John Arnold (centre, back) with priests and pilgrims during his visit to Lourdes last week

THERE was a priest of the Waterford Diocese, Fr Paddy Cooney - he died back in 2013 - and he used say that most people want two things in life, health and happiness. Very few would disagree with that statement.

In Lourdes over recent days, Fr Paddy’s words were repeated at a Mass in the Rosary Basilica. But, of course, not all happy people are healthy and certainly not all healthy people are happy.

They say ‘your health is your wealth’ and how true this is, because good health is far more important than riches of a financial kind. 

In this regards, Lourdes is a great leveller -as Tony O Brien’s song says, “The rich and the poor, the strong and the lame” are all the same.

I returned from Lourdes on Monday. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think it was my 25th time at the shrine in the south of France. The global Covid pandemic has meant pilgrimages, as we knew them, with assisted pilgrims staying in the Aceuiel (Hospital) in Lourdes, have not travelled since 2019. This is the third year in a row that no diocesan groups from Cloyne and Cork and Ross have made the trip to France.

Will it ever be the same again, with huge throngs and up to five million visitors annually to Lourdes? No-one knows what the future may bring!

The much sought after attributes of health and happiness don’t go hand in hand always. We all know people in the full of their health but they are not happy nor content as they yearn and strive for more and more.

Being ill or unhealthy is no joke and year after year in Lourdes I am fascinated at the patience and fortitude of so many people not blessed with good health. It’s not always because they have strong faith or unshakeable religious beliefs, yerra not at all, but through sickness and infirmity they can plainly see what’s really important in life.

Planes arriving and departing late, floods, baking heat, torrential rain and going hungry for hours sitting on uncomfortable seats in airports - but not a bother on them as they just put up with it and get on with life -no matter how challenging.

I remember very little about my first trip to Lourdes as a freckly, foxy haired 14-year old in 1971. My next time there was in June, 2007 - more of a ‘fact-finding’ mission than anything else. I was taken from Tarbes Airport by bus to my hotel. In between then and now, my first French journey each June was always from Tarbes straight to the hospital, where we were really based for five days to look after our special guests, the assisted pilgrims. Unfortunately, Covid has changed all that.

So last Wednesday I travelled from Cork to France with the Waterford and Lismore Pilgrimage. It was a different summer experience for me, the Hotel Agena was HQ for the five days.

Initially, I thought I’d feel guilty with no ‘work’ to do, but that didn’t happen. True, I had more time for activities other than the Pilgrimage ‘Programme’.

I took a trip up the mountains on Saturday. As Cork hurlers played Antrim, we were following the route of the Gave river to its source in the Pyrenees above Gavarne.

I got to go out to Bartres also that morning for a very special trip. It was great to meet and interact with so many ‘new’ people (friends just waiting to be met really) from Tallow right up to Clonmel. Many are Lourdes ‘regulars’ who go year after year, but I met people there for the first time too and can safely say they really enjoyed it.

Lourdes is an amazing place where the expected is never mundane and the unexpected can be fantastic. 

Sitting next to us at mealtime each day was a lady who had only recently lost her husband. She’d been to Lourdes many times but her knowledge and ‘gra’ for Cite de St Pierrre (The City of the Poor) was immeasurable.

Founded in 1955 by Fr Jean Rodhain, the ‘City’, in the hillside above Lourdes, provides accommodation for about 20,000 pilgrims each year. Initially set up to help people in financial difficulties, the ‘City’ has 40 employees but relies on over 1,000 volunteers each year.

When Lourdes town is busy and hectic, noisy and bustling, Cite de St Pierre provides an oasis of tranquillity. We went up there on Sunday.

I just adore the little stone-built thatched chapel, an exact replica of the sheep-fold in Bartres where young Bernadette Soubirious minded the sheep for the Lagues family in 1857, the year before the Apparitions.

Walking down the slope from St Joseph’s Gate into the Domain and standing there at the crowned Virgin Statue is always special. The statue is made from white marble, a dense, cold stone, yet the welcome extended by the Crowned Virgin is amazing. It’s as if she is saying ‘Hello, welcome back here again’, and when we left on Wednesday morning her message was the same as always, ‘Goodbye but not farewell- come again’.

No matter if it’s crowded or nearly empty, as I’ve often experienced in midwinter, the pull, magnetism, draw or yearning for the Grotto remains amazing. 

The silver ‘threads’ on the ground where a little stream ran in 1857, then the tile on the ground where the young Bernadette knelt on February 11, then the focus of it all, the Statue of Our Lady... please, please if you’ve never been there, do go if you can.

I can and have written thousands of words over the years, but words are inadequate to amply and fully describe the aura and peace the Grotto exudes. Last week was no different.

 People say to me, ‘But John, I wouldn’t be very spiritual or holy or religious or anything like that’ - my answer is always the same, simply go there and you’ll never forget it.

Lourdes touches different people in different ways, and yes, some are not moved by the experience, and that’s grand too. Our Lady or anyone else forces no-one to believe or worship, but for me it’s so special.

Yes, we had some very, very special moments last week. On our first night in Lourdes there was a ‘Stage’ induction ceremony in St Joseph’s Church. A period of service with the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes is known as a ‘Stage’. The name comes from the French for ‘work experience’, and a week working on Stage in Lourdes is a great experience.

Those on Stage are often known as ‘stagiaires’, or more recently ‘hospitaliters auxiliaries’. One such person who worked as a Stagier in Lourdes was our friend Aine Byrne, of Cobh. Bright, bubbly, vivacious, friendly and a trojan worker, Aine unexpectedly died in 2019 - scarcely a day passes without her beaming smile flashing across my mind. 

We all miss her so and in Lourdes I can feel her spirit and assistance each day.

On Wednesday night, a special medal in Aine’s memory and honour was accepted by Helen Foy on behalf of her family, friends and all who ever met this special girl. Bishop Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore and his priests led us in the different ceremonies during the week, and because the crowds were smaller, each event was so relaxed and meaningful.

The Healing Mass on Sunday was so special. We all need healing in one form or another and the Anointing of the hands and head is very emotional - a reminder of our human frailty and God’s help.

Bernadette herself left Lourdes for the last time in 1866 and wanted it to be about Our Lady and not herself. Just three small statues of her can be found in Lourdes, and none at the Grotto.

In 2015, Sr Marie Therese O Connell from Mallow died in Lourdes. She went to France in the mid-1950s to work in a souvenir shop and joined the Poor Clares. I visited her grave with many people last week, having got the cemetery key by pre-arrangement.

A mother and daughter in our group were both visiting Lourdes for the first time. Anxious to see as much as possible, we travelled with them by taxi last Saturday morning out to Bartres. In this tiny village, young Bernadette spent her infancy and was there again in the autumn of 1857.

I’ve often sat in silence in the Church there dedicated to John the Baptist. A Scottish priest was saying Mass in English for a small group from Edinburgh when we arrived so we were able to attend.

The tiny Church is maintained by the Franciscan sisters who live nearby. One nun was at the Mass so I asked could we see the Relic of St Bernadette kept in the sacristy. She obliged and we were humbled to venerate the relic, as were the Scots.

We laughed and prayed and cried and sang in Lourdes last week - that what makes it so special.

Now we are home and happy to be

Telling of places we’ve happened to be

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

It’s Lourdes, the village of St Bernadette

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