Lourdes: simply nowhere like it!

I cannot help but feel deeply moved by the very experience of being in Lourdes. This small town in the Pyrenean foothills has played an essential and dynamic role in my life and the life of the small family I have built to date.

It is the place I met my beloved wife, Louise, the place where we first kissed, and where we have travelled to together many times since. For the last three years, since our oldest two boys have been old enough to follow in our footsteps and come with the diocese to spend the week in service to the elderly and handicapped, it has become the focal point for our annual gathering to mourn the loss of Ruth and to thank God for her life.

It is difficult every year, I wish I could say that it gets easier...But it doesn't. I think we get better at dealing with the raw onslaught of annual emotion, the day when we face head on the stark reality of her absence. I am sure some people think "just get over it" after six years, but I do not feel the need to apologise; I am not over it, nor do I think I shall ever be over it. It is really, really hard not having her here and I think about everything in the context of Ruth; how she would react, how she would enjoy it. Of course it is a constant challenge to hold these emotions in check so that they do not take over and effect the family. Life goes on and thank God for it! Lou and I both spent a lot of time approaching the anniversary of Ruth's death by discussing the immense consolation we feel in Mary. We talked about their similarities and what an absolute joy Mary is in herself. As she approaches the age Ruth was when she died, the comparison becomes ever more striking.

There are a couple of things I wanted to share about this trip to Lourdes. One is on the youth. The Youth Service of Brentwood Diocese are really quite extraordinary and I particularly noticed that a remarkable amount of comments were made from older diocesan pilgrims about how wonderful it was to see the young people of the diocese so integral to their experience of pilgrimage; how happy and how joyful they were; how ready to help. It struck me that we seldom, if ever, hear such reports about the young people in our society, and what a difference it would make if the mass media exposed the country to the stories of faith, hope and joy the young people in Lourdes this past week would tell. And it's not just Brentwood. Liverpool; Shrewsbury; Hexham & Newcastle; Westminster. Lourdes is teeming with youthful, smiling faces at this time of year, singing, pushing wheelchairs, chatting excitedly. What would people say if they could see this? Would they ask if this is the effect Catholicism has on society? Of course, we won't see it. It doesn't suit the BBC's agenda to see young people of faith in such a positive light. Such a shame really.

The leaders of the Brentwood Youth contingent are extraordinary too. I have to single out the events manager, Róisín Gallagher, who in reality does so much more than just organise events. Her contribution is outstanding and born of an obvious and genuine discipleship. Her way of being with the young people is natural and unobtrusive. Her genuine faith is enthusiastic and effusive; it has to be shared, she knows its power to change lives, to heal wounds, to give life.

The Youth Chaplain is Father James Mackay, a young priest who has achieved quite incredible growth and development during his tenure as Youth Chaplain. My sons (17 and 18) find him one of the most inspiring members of the clergy that accompany the youth. It strikes me that this is because of two main things. The first is that he understands that young people need a challenge. They need faith to be challenging. They need it to mean something and they want to know what difference it will make in their lives to be Catholic. They do not want the bland, vanilla, holding hands, touchy-feely type of religion which promises everything but ultimately delivers nothing. It delivers nothing because it is self-reflective and focuses on YOU. Authentic Catholicism focuses on SERVICE (Mk 10:44). After the very first Mass of the pilgrimage, this was the message that Róisín delivered in spades.

I know from my own experience of travelling to Lourdes that it is this service that kept me Catholic; that kept me coming back. It was the opportunity to actually DO something practical with my faith that had a real effect on other people. Made them smile; made them happy. I could change lives and all I had to do was give something of myself. This is what the Gospel means.

The second thing is that Fr. James understands that the centrality of Christ in all this is essential, lest we loose ourselves in our own self-worth. Fr. James understands that sacredness and holiness are vital components for youth. They need to not feel self-conscience when the commune with the almighty. They need to feel that they are part of a community where prayer and worship are the norm. Where respect for Christ, really and truly present on the altar at Mass, are the norm. Where love of our fellow man is born of love for the God-Man; Jesus Christ, who's Incarnation takes our broken humanity and deifies it, providing the bridge which allows us to say "Abba, Father", and to dare hope that we can dwell with Him in heaven.

In addition to these things, I know that Fr. James also knows that we all are seeking inspirational leaders. For the Church to grow in momentum, we need seriously Catholic men; priests and bishops, to stand up and give good example. To be Catholic, to encourage and unite us in faith. 

Over the last few years of my own involvement with Brentwood Youth Service, through my sons, I have seen Father James enact his vision and I have seen the resultant fruit first hand. He was given something special to nurture and he has built on it without taking anything from what was good. The numbers at the monthly Youth Mass at the Cathedral have grown extensively, from 15 or so individuals when he started, to well over 100 attendees now. The Catechists team actually know the faith and are invigorated by this and want to pass it on. 

I really hope that the powers that be recognise the importance of this work (genuinely forming young people for discipleship). It is the only way forward for the Church; our schools are certainly not fit for purpose, except for a few notable exceptions. We need to develop a mechanism for informing our young people and providing them with tools to confront the secular culture, to argue against the prevalent secular mindset with intellectually sound ideas which assert the prime dignity of human life, the importance of the natural law and the Gospel message. This cannot be worked out individually; it is not a feeling that you stumble across and pursue, it must be taught, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in his work Introduction to Christianity:
Faith cannot and should not be a mere product of reflection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for the truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognise the intrinsic quality of belief, which cannot be thought out...
...because faith is not something thought up by me but something that comes to me from outside, its word cannot be treated and exchanged as I please; it is always foreordained, always ahead of my thinking...
...Faith...is first of all a call to community, to unity of mind through the unity of the word.
In other words; we have to be told what the faith is before we can reflect and open up the way for each individual's private venture in search of truth. It struck me that this is an essential point when we consider the role of the bishop, who is a source and sign of unity in the community (CCC 886; c.f. LG 23). This unity does not exist unless it is in the communal expression of the faith as defined (de fide) therefore his sacred duty as teacher and ruler as utterly essential to this office (CCC 1558). Strong episcopal leadership would facilitate a flow of the faith, through his priests and deacons, to the people.

My final thought on this year's pilgrimage further develops the theme of unity. In Lourdes, I am always struck by the physical demonstration of the universal nature of the Church. At the Torchlight Procession, the prayers are said in all different languages. Any visit to the grotto reveals people of many different nationalities praying earnestly in a multitude of different languages. I find this a very moving and physical demonstration of the work of the Trinity in our word; building community across human borders of language and nationality, and uniting us in faith of the one true God. Catholicism is a religion of unity in diversity and this strikes me as the antidote to the modern obsession with "equality". Catholicism recognises the differences that truly do exist, and celebrates them, it embraces them, and makes them part of the collective, warts and all, to the glory of God.

I hope the Lambert family will return to Lourdes for another pilgrimage next year. I wonder what changes there will be in all our lives then?


  1. When my dad died (he was the first person close to me to go) I remember realising that For The Rest of My Life I would be without him; I missed him and there would be no change; I would have to cope. Twenty-five years on, I am still here, and still coping. The raw emotion is no longer acute, but at times something reminds me of him and catches me unawares and I am acutely conscious he is not here. He had lived his three score years and ten and shortly afterward it became clear that his death had saved us from great financial distress. (He was a Name at LLoyd's and you may remember the crisis the Market went through in 1990; we would have been affected by it because, although he had decided to resign his membership, the process takes three years. On his death it took immediate effect and he was not liable for any losses after that.)

    I imagine it is harder for you; children know that one day their parents will die and leave them, but parents do not expect their children to go. I was wondering how near Mary was to the age Ruth had been and thinking the year she comes up to that time won't be easy for you, but I think you have a little while to go yet.

  2. Ruth hasn't left. She's with you, still part of the family. This is the lesson of Lourdes, all those we miss so much are not far away. God Bless you all.


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