Last summer, I travelled by coach with over 50 young people from our diocese of Arundel and Brighton to work as helpers on the Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. Among those on the coach were students from our Sixth Form Centre. The students, supported by the school, had prepared and fundraised through the year to pay for the trip. Our school has a long connection with the Lourdes pilgrimage which we are eager to build on in the coming years. A big thank you to Mr. Kibble and the Senior Leadership who ensured that every student, who wanted to, was able to go.
All on the coach were excited and, I suppose, a bit nervous about what would happen when we arrived. Pilgrimages are like this; God always has something unexpected and wonderful in store for each of us when we make the journey; but what will that be? We take ourselves out of our comfort zone and take time to view ourselves anew. We encounter others on a deeper level than we do normally.
After 22 hours, we arrived in Lourdes . Some went to live and help in the hotel communities with those pilgrims who just needed some support and company; others, including all our Salesian boys, went to work in the Accueil, the care facility for pilgrims who need specialist and more intensive support. I went to be an assistant Chaplain in one of the hotels. As a helper, your job is to ensure that the person you are supporting has the fullest opportunity to enjoy the experience of Lourdes. You push them, you practically support them, you chat with them, you drink lots of tea and you pray with them. Your greatest gifts are your time and your presence. Throughout the week, these were the gifts that our students shared with such joy and enthusiasm. Through this we all learn the second mystery of pilgrimage; you always receive far more than you give. Of course, the experience of Lourdes is not all work and prayer. Celebration and having fun together are so important. In Lourdes, we all had so much fun! It is a great place of equality. In the café, bars, churches or grotto, everyone mingles together; one Church on pilgrimage. The special dimension of Lourdes is that those who are vulnerable or weak or have levels of disability, are the most important people there. One of our students, working the Accueil, recalled that his most moving experience was the gentle but determined way that the volunteers ensured that two men who were severely disabled were able to take part in the healing Mass in the underground basilica. Many people have disabilities in Lourdes but no one is handicapped by this. Ever since our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a young local girl, over 100 years ago; Lourdes has been a place of healing and welcome. People who may feel isolated, alone or fearful about the future, often find great peace and support in Lourdes.
For the week, I had the great privilege of spending time visiting our students and listening about their experiences. Their dedication, sense of fun and generosity were wonderful to see. Their only complaint was that it was over too soon. Their only question at the end of the pilgrimage was; "when can we come back again?" It is my constant experience is that on pilgrimage God will reveal himself to each one of us in a very personal way at least once. Each of our students had that experience. It is what makes a pilgrimage very different from a working holiday.
As well as the students who went as helpers, we had students who went as red-shirts. This is an experience of living, praying and sharing together which is open to 15 and 16 year olds. They also worked as welcomers at the major events. For them, it was time in which their relationship with their faith grew more profound and close friendships were made. One student, whom I watched with some surprise and happiness, dancing with others on the altar during one liturgy, admitted to me that in Lourdes he found that he was unable to say, "no" when asked to do something new. Lourdes is a 'give it a try' kind of place. However, he did ask me not to tell his parents.