Hearts & Spirits stirred as Brentwood goes to Lourdes with a New Bishop!

Gathered together for prayers at the Grotto on Ruth's Anniversary 2014
The week before last was the Brentwood Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes and I must apologise that I have only just managed to finally finish my blog on the trip. This event annually coincides with Brentwood Catholic Youth Service's annual Summer Lourdes Pilgrimage. The Youth Service goes to Lourdes in Spring too, but Summer is the big pilgrimage, with four coach loads of young people heading off to help our VIP's in whatever way they can. There's a nice bit on BBC iPlayer here, from Peter Holmes' show on Sunday, which features the Bishop, Fr. James, Roisin and my son Michael (amongst others).

Both of my oldest sons joined them for the second time, but the pilgrimage also coincided with the 5th anniversary of my daughter Ruth's tragic death and we really did not want to be apart as a family for this day. As much as I want it to fade into ignominy as a date, it never fails to sneak up on me with the power to elicit a sickening sense of loss. The loss of course, is always there, I have just got practiced at ignoring it on a day-to-day basis over the five years that have passed. It lurks, feral, ready to pounce in any unguarded moment. Those unguarded moments are not infrequent, and I am aware that my tolerance levels have changed a great deal in the last five years. I can only think that this is due to a kind of fatigue at being constantly wary, waiting for the sickening blow of the grief that constantly stalks me now.

Last year, I commemorated Ruth's fourth anniversary by writing an article which was published in the Catholic Herald. This year I mostly just wanted to hide. I felt sure that the five year thing would mean the pain and grief would be less, five years seems a reasonable amount of time to get over anything, but as the dreaded anniversary approached I felt the familiar sensations of desperate grief crashing over me like a suffocating wave, driving me ferociously into the sand and grinding my face into the cold, hard, reality. Ruth has died. The familiar nausea is concentrated somehow on her anniversary. It's like a day set aside to open the box wherein dwells the monster that is my grief. And it is a dark, all-devouring monster of which I am most terrified, because my grief reflects the depth of my love for my daughter, and that love is the most powerful, most profound love I have ever experienced.

All this is constantly compounded for me by the fracture in my family. My counselor tells me the reason it is such a huge part of the problem for me is because I am a "fixer" by nature who cares for everyone and wants to "fix" everything...Only some things just won't be fixed, and in order to fix some things you need the right tools. Whatever hope there ever was of fixing the fractures in my family, because of the burden of grief I carry, a burden which does not seem to be understood on any level by anyone else, I no longer have any tools. I often feel like it is all I can do to doggedly hang on while life whirls around me like a sickening fairground ride. All that makes sense most of the time is my intimate family. Louise, Will, Mike, John and my beloved Mary. As we grow, and the bonds between us deepen, we realise more fully that we can trust and rely on each other, and the love and trust between us all grows. So I cling to them like a drowning man to a piece of flotsam. When I feel things are getting too mad, I know they know me, they love me, they understand the grief and they pain and share it to a large extent. It will never go away, because every day we miss our sunny, smiley, happy, loving little girl. I can just lock myself away with them, and each one of them heals me in a special way. Each moment with them is precious and something to thank God for. My perceptions of family are probably different to many people's. They're different from what I was brought up thinking they should be, this is as a direct result of the betrayals I have suffered. The hardest situations I have faced in my own life have, bizarrely, been a direct result of the action taken by my own family, specifically my own father and latterly, my brother. So for me, the term "family" doesn't have any cosy connotations, true "family" for me is as much an action: the way we treat each other, i.e. with care, deference, and most importantly respect, I give no concessions for a word that purports to denote unfailing loyalty, yet in reality often allows others to manipulate and exploit your love and generosity. The poison in my familial relationships were really brought to the fore through betrayal and poor decisions made in the aftermath of Ruth's death, and so the two things are sadly, inextricably linked somehow in my psyche. Not helpful. But there it is.

For all these reasons and more unspoken ones, Louise and I decided we would book a nice apartment in Lourdes, fly to Toulouse and drive down to the Pyrenean foothills, so that we could all be together for the 29th in whatever capacity was possible, given the BCYS schedule, and what the boys wanted to do.

It was an inspired plan and we had a really joyful few days. As always, it was a great privilege to be away on the diocesan pilgrimage, not to mention the wonderful BCYS. It's great to feel your whole diocese are on pilgrimage with you. There are so many wonderful people to chat to, many you may not have seen for some time. This was also the first time the diocese had been away with our new bishop. Everyone was frankly blown away by Bishop Alan, who was very much in evidence throughout the time I was there. He was unloading pilgrim's cases from the bus, telling the youth that being a Catholic is important "because the Catholic faith contains the fullness of truth", joining in with the fun at the hotel, and generally being our spiritual father. By the end of the week, all the pilgrims, especially the youth and priests were beaming, having had an opportunity to get to know him a little. It must have been useful for Bishop Alan as well, to get to know a good number of the diocese in a largely informal situation. He commented on the pilgrimage:
I was overjoyed on my first diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. It was real inspiration to see how all our pilgrims – the young, the old, the vulnerable and those with special needs - prayed and worked together to give us such a memorable and energetic week. May our Lady of Lourdes and St Bernadette continue to pray for us as we try to take the love and joy of Christ to our futures.
Bishop Alan with diocesan Youth Chaplain Fr. James Mackay.
Father Dominic Howarth was pilgrimage director and he has posted this beautiful account on the diocesan website:
Summer 2014 marked the 25th pilgrimage since Brentwood began travelling as a diocese to Lourdes, and we marked the year with great joy and exuberance, dedicated service and powerful faith. We were the largest group that had ever travelled from Brentwood Diocese – 473 in all, aged from eight to 92, and including around 170 young people aged 15-18, accompanied by more than 80 leaders, most aged 19-23. There was a hard working doctor, a dedicated nursing team, a superb team of helpers, a team of musicians who provided beautiful accompaniment for every Mass and Liturgy, along with 12 diocesan priests and two deacons. In every way, for those of all ages, for those who need assistance and for those who are able to offer it, this was a well-supported pilgrimage, with many wonderful opportunities.
For the recently-ordained Bishop Alan, it was a new experience. In his final homily, he said that he was “blown away” by it all – such an experience of joy and service, faith, courage and hope. He spoke powerfully about how it had been more and more evident throughout the week just how much we all needed each other; pilgrims needed the energy of the young to be able to move around Lourdes, and the young also grew in receiving both the wisdom and the affirmation of those they were assisting.
The week included great processions – the Marian procession by candle-light, and the procession with the Blessed Sacrament joined by thousands of pilgrims from across the world. More intimately, we celebrated the Sacraments of Anointing and Reconciliation, as well as Masses together. At the Mass in the Grotto we joined with the Welsh National Pilgrimage (the “Gavin and Stacey Mass”) for a celebration that was both joyful and deeply moving. Our day out took us to Gavarnie, in the Pyrenees, with splendid weather and breathtaking views.
Tributes have poured in over the 48 hours between returning home and writing this article. One pilgrim wrote: “Thank you to the young – they are such wonderful people. Thank you to everyone who has cared for us – it has been a wonderful trip to Lourdes.” Another wrote: “My experience of Lourdes as a first timer was an overwhelming feeling of welcome: I didn't feel like I was an outsider. I came to Lourdes not really knowing what to expect, and was a person who thought work was the be all and end all. Leaving Lourdes was emotional to say the least. But I know I wouldn't have felt the peace I feel now had I not gone to Lourdes.”
The trip was summed up by another first timer, who said: “I have come home feeling so spiritually uplifted, and full of peace. One of the highlights for me was the total dedication, enthusiasm and hard work from the BCYS. When I looked over my balcony on the 8th floor, and saw a sea of blue T shirts coming down the road on their way to help the pilgrims, I felt really proud of them all. You don't see that side of Essex on TOWIE! They truly are an inspiration and a wonderful reflection of all those who work with them.”
“Notice the difference,” Bishop Alan said in his final homily, quoting St Ignatius, “Notice the difference.” He meant, notice what had stirred our hearts and spirits in Lourdes – the peace, the faith, the cheerfulness, the kindness. Notice how we felt – about ourselves, about our faith, about those we had met on the journey. There is no doubt that the week in Lourdes had refreshed hearts and minds, along with new discoveries about what it means to serve and to be served, in the light of Christ. In noticing it, we bring it home.
I don't know about you, but I found this account of the pilgrimage extremely uplifting. The beauty and power of a pilgrimage like this is so often expressed as Christ coming alive in our hearts, and inspiring a blossoming of feelings of community and togetherness. There are so many wonderful dimensions to a Lourdes pilgrimage. Aisling Gallagher writes very expressively of her experience here in a way which demonstrates the importance and value of these experiences and recognises the place that pain and struggle plays in our lives:
...life is beautiful, but it hurts. It will crush you occasionally.
'Aint that the truth?

Certainly, Lourdes was formative in my life, I met Louise there for one thing, and made many of the dearest friends I have still today. Those trips for us provided an opportunity to "live Catholic" for a week or so, tied to the rhythm of prayer and immersed in an environment of contemplation and reflection few get to experience in their lives today. It demonstrated the efficacy and the reality of Christ in our lives; the reality of our search for God, and the power of embracing our search for Him, and making it central to all we do. There can be no arguing that we were changed in a very real way by our experiences. Experiences which find a place in your heart and live with you forever after, change your perception and affected your hope always.

On a personal level, I suppose the family plan worked. We were together, and although the emotion we always feel was ever-present, it seemed somehow mitigated by our proximity to our Blessed Mother. She who held her crucified Son; Stabat Mater. She knows the pain we feel, the pain of a lost child. It was our prayer to her that was heard and put before the Father. It was the answer to that prayer that was manifest in our Mary, our gift from heaven, our little princess.

The place where pain becomes part of the Catholic experience is perhaps one of the greatest insights for me and it is the demarcation point between the Buddhist philosophy I have found reasonable and seductive, which decries all forms of attachment as the source of our pain, and a Catholic philosophy, which similarly decries material attachment, but encourages love, despite and perhaps even emphasising the pain of loss which is inevitable. Ultimately that death and suffering are a part of life is unavoidable. What we do with them is what really matters and ultimately, relationship with God is the only sure way of dealing with trauma. In my life, God has, in a very real sense, walked alongside me to help me to cope with what has felt like an impossible loss. God has always been there for my family and I, all that was required from us was trust; to reach out in our pain and to know He was always there, united with us in our grief. After five years, and the birth of our beloved Mary, we are learning to smile once more...

It seemed to work...My beloved family together in Lourdes for Ruth's Anniversary.

Weep not for what you have lost, fight for what you have. Weep not for 
what is dead, fight for what was born in you. Weep not for the one who 
abandoned you, fight for who is with you. Weep not for those who hate 
you, fight for those who want you. Weep not for your past, fight for 
your present struggle. Weep not for your suffering, fight for your 
happiness. With things that are happening to us, we begin to learn that 
nothing is impossible to solve, just move forward.


  1. "A person who has suffered this kind of grief needs time to rediscover gradually other reasons to live. . . . In order to emerge from this state of loss and grief, and begin a new life, people need not so much a therapist as friends who are prepared to walk with them. These friends cannot nor should they try to take away the grief, but rather accept it with them. The grieving process has its own particular rhythm in each person. It needs time. We should not try and make it disappear quickly through artificial ways and distractions. Sometimes people need to cry, scream and shout their pain, anger and frustration in order to free themselves gradually from the pain and find new life." Seeing beyond Depression by Jean Vanier


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