Lourdes & Our Catholic Family

I have spent the last week in beautiful hot weather on pilgrimage in Lourdes with the family.

Mary reading through the in-flight safety
Some people have asked me about the damage that was done by the recent floods. We were contacted by our hotel a week before departure as they couldn't honour our booking due to flood damage. Interestingly, we were able to get alternative accommodation without any problem. This made me wonder whether there were the usual number of pilgrims there for the time of year and indeed, the town was busy, but not as heaving, as I have seen it in the past.

The damage is visible, the glass covering the spring in the Grotto has been damaged, the wall bordering le Gave is damaged, but the most visible sign is the bridge from the Domain to the Basilica Bernadette, which suffered a great deal of damage. Overall, the place looks surprisingly good and is 99% open for business. They've done a sterling job cleaning it up so well in such a short space of time.

Our visit fortuitously coincided with both the Diocesan Pilgrimage and the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service Pilgrimage, although we were officially affiliated to neither.

Recreating that magic moment!
William and Michael were on the youth service trip, Mike had a show that meant he couldn't travel out on Saturday with the main group, so we decided to fly him out ourselves on the Sunday. As Lourdes is a very special place for Louise and I, having first met there in 1989, and shared our first kiss outside Hotel Atlantic on a Spring evening, and my having not returned for about sixteen years, we thought this presented the perfect opportunity to be back there together.

After as many as eight years of taking part in organised visits to Lourdes, being unaffiliated was always a dream of ours, and this trip presented us with the best of both worlds. We had the benefit of having lots of lovely people we know from the Youth Service and the Diocese with us, the opportunity to join in with activities and liturgies as we wanted, without having to conform to what can often be the rather rigorous routine of an organised pilgrimage. This gave us the flexibility to head out of town, visit Bartres at our leisure, do the High Stations, take the funicular up Pic du Jer, but meet up with everyone for the torchlight procession, and join them for Mass everyday.

It was a great honour and a privilege to be in this company. This pilgrimage is the last for Sarah and James Barber after some 29 years of involvement. Their legacy is something to observe and a great credit to their unrelenting commitment and enthusiasm.

This is also a great legacy for our Bishop, Thomas McMahon, who has always supported our Youth Service.

As he looks forward to retirement, one important element to his legacy is that 251 young people from Brentwood Diocese were at Lourdes this year. The behaviour I observed was impeccable, due to some degree no doubt to careful, experienced management and a packed programme, as well as the care and enthusiasm of the leaders. Brentwood Catholic Youth Service has produced at least six priestly vocations and many more committed Catholic teachers, as well as nurses like my wife, and boring business people like myself. It is prayerful, vibrant and alive; what struck me most was that whenever we bumped into a group of Brentwood Youth in the town, they were polite, engaging, and most of all HAPPY! They were so smiley! It was clear that everyone was having a brilliant time.

Many wonderful priests of our diocese were present and I was able to spend some time catching up with a dear friend, Fr. Mark Reilly. Fr. Martin Boland, who I last saw at the Deanery Lenten Reflection evenings, Fr. James Mackay, our new Diocesan Youth Chaplain, were out there and Fr. Paul Keen, writer and commentator. On Thursday morning, we went to Mass at the Grotto with Bishop Mark Davis of Shrewsbury presiding. Archbishop Vincent Nichols preached very powerfully on the theme of Westminster's pilgrimage: The Cross, The Rock, The Water, and The Light, and Brentwood provided the music for the liturgy. This was a wonderful celebration and I felt so wonderful to be in that special place with so many Catholics from my own Country, coming together to pray the Mass.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols preaches at a packed Mass at the Grotto on Thursday morning.
This trip presents an opportunity for many of the young people of our Diocese to immerse themselves in Catholic culture which is invaluable in my opinion. This fact struck me particularly as I sat at Cafe Les Brancardiers with my family for dinner, noisily singing grace before meals. No one bats an eye-lid in Lourdes, we are all there in service, we are all there to see our Mother, we are all there to pay homage to Christ, we are all there as one.

The comment from my own two eldest sons has, so far, focused on the service element of the pilgrimage. They found this very beneficial, an opportunity to put their faith into action, to demonstrate just what being Catholic really means, not just in words but through what they were doing. This is my own strongest memory of Lourdes pilgrimages when I was a young man. It showed me what faith looked like when it was put to practical use. Of course, when you get older, life presents you with situations where you are challenged to manifest your Catholicity more often. From simply refraining from eating meat on Friday, to refusing to use contraception, to your employment policy at work, life is full of decisions which require your engagement and understanding of what it means to be Catholic.

However, their comments resonate deeply with me and speak to a deep desire I shared as a young man who had come in contact with the Gospel. It's clearest message seemed to be one of compassion and helping others. Loving your neighbour, caring for the sick.

The Brentwood Group
Compassion for the poor and sick were hallmarks of Jesus' ministry on earth and we are reminded of this by Pope Francis constantly. This may well make us feel uncomfortable as we strive for wealth and measure our success in terms of our financial liquidity relative to our peers, and so it should. If we understand real success, we understand how it is solely about our closeness to God. This closeness is manifest in our generosity towards others and in the abundance of the love we lavish on those we come into contact with.

As a young man, I wanted to know what practical use my faith was, both to me and to the rest of the world. What actual good being a Catholic would do. Was it just about Mass and prayers? They might make me feel better, but what good are they to anyone else? They almost seemed a cop out, something to do instead of actually doing something. Lourdes taught me that it had a real practical dimension that, when applied, had the ability to change the world. Secured in the understanding that it was practical and real, I studied, and came to see how this was fundamentally Trinitarian. We seek the Kingdom where everyone has love for God and love for neighbour and this is an image of the Trinity wherein each member wants nothing but the very best for the others. This is unity in diversity, we do not lose our individuality, but all focus on one thing-- God.

Mum, Lou and Mary as we walked the Way of the Cross
This was the theological theme that repeated itself to me time and again over the course of my pilgrimage last week. Since I was in Lourdes last, I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land. Although I approached the trip with some cynicism, I was moved on the effect walking in the steps of Our Lord had on me. Yet one could never consider the Holy Land as it is as a Christian place, let alone Catholic. It is an ebullient flux of cultures and religions where you never quite know what's going on.

Lourdes on the other hand is a place where the faith has taken root, grown, and flourished, nurtured by the visions seen by Bernadette and the subsequent miracles that have occurred, the mortal efforts of raising the Basilicas and Domain, the pilgrims, the shops, cafes and restaurants that have grown up to service them, the processions, the Masses, the chants, the prayers, the acts of devotion and worship. Lourdes is where something truly miraculous occurred, and continues to occur, and where we come to celebrate that God is truly with us. We come from all corners of the world in an wonderfully eclectic mix of colourful national flags, languages, shapes and sizes. Despite our diversity, we are one, and this is never more clearly demonstrated than at the end of the torchlight procession, when all jumbled together in front of the Rosary Basilica, everyone turns to each other and with great affection, offers each other the peace of Christ. The reality of the Kingdom becomes clear in the focus on the sick and handicapped among us. William couldn't get over the way in which, pushing a wheelchair afforded him priority in all manner of things whilst in Lourdes.

In Lourdes, one sees what it would be like if all the world had Christian priorities, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.


  1. My memories of Lourdes have become a big blur over the years with a few cristal clear moment that shine thru - I have a new one of those moments during Mass at (or in our case nearish) the grotto a woman from Lancaster after seeing how Brentwood behaved in comparison with everyone else said "how do you keep them so well ordered in Mass" my reply was "they are at Mass"
    Proud does not go near what I Felt

  2. My memories of Lourdes have become a big blur over the years with a few cristal clear moment that shine thru - i have a new one of those moments during Mass at (or in our case nearish) the grotto a woman from Lancaster after seeing how Brentwood behaved in comparison with everyone esle said "how do you keep them so well ordered in Mass" my reply was "they are at Mass"
    Proud does not go near what I Felt

  3. Lovely and how romantic for you and your wife. The photos are great. I have never been, can you believe it, but I am not a crowd person, being an introvert. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think this year was my 12th pilgrimage to Lourdes and yet I still come away with something new and deeper every time. It is the same experience with reading a familiar Gospel passage and being touched by something different.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Pope Francis: we planned it all before the conclave

Pope Francis: Dismantling Marriage

Establishing a New Object of Worship