by Craig and Nancy Gibson
The American Association’s annual Pilgrimage to Lourdes is at the very heart of the Order of Malta’s worldwide ministry to the sick and the poor. The work our Knights, Dames and other volunteers do throughout the week in service to our Malades and Caregivers is an essential expression of our calling as members of a lay religious order. We travel to Lourdes to give of ourselves completely. While there, we become robustly alive as, by the gift of God’s grace, we become signs of His compassionate presence. The Pilgrimage provides a deep opportunity for those making this journey to experience a grace-filled conversion of heart, bringing us closer to God.
During this moving, spiritual journey we are guided by and ministered to by the priests who accompany us. The official team includes 10 Priest-Chaplains who come from various American Association Areas. Additionally, cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons who are making the Pilgrimage also serve the pilgrims. Led by Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie, Rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Assistant Principal Chaplain of the Order of Malta, American Association, the Clergy celebrate Mass, lead a range of spiritual activities and provide individual counseling and support. They are fully present throughout the week.
“The Lourdes Pilgrimage provides opportunities for our Knights and Dames to live the Order’s mission, first by serving the sick but also by enhancing their own spiritual lives,” said Msgr. Ritchie. He also said the Pilgrimage was a way for clergy to expand their experience in dealing with populations they may not typically serve. “Priests have the opportunity of being involved in ministry with people who are in a grace-filled time of serious illness, people who are at the most vulnerable points of their lives.”
The role of the priests includes guiding a range of spiritual activities as well as providing spiritual guidance for individuals on the Pilgrimage.
First, two priests are assigned to each of the seven teams, which are designated by colors. Each team is led by two Co- Captains and is made up of just over 50 people. In addition to the Clergy, the teams include Malades, Caregivers, Medical Staff, Knights, Dames, Auxiliary and other volunteers. Each priest will be with his team throughout the week. “His job is to be available to anybody in his group,” Msgr. Ritchie said. “Sometimes a casual conversation can be the best opportunity to help someone on a spiritual journey.”
The priests also are given a variety of formal assignments throughout the week, from facilitating Reflection Groups to hearing confessions to taking part in the many liturgies and other events. The formal program begins Thursday afternoon with the Opening Tri-Association Mass in the Rosary Basilica. This is a Mass we celebrate with the other two associations from the United States, the Federal Association and the Western Association, who are at Lourdes the same week. All priests concelebrate, making this a powerful spiritual beginning to our Pilgrimage.
A look at our first full day, Friday, shows how integral the priests are to our experience and how they lead us through the profound spiritual elements of the Pilgrimage.
On Friday morning, after morning prayer and breakfast, all of us: Malades, Caregivers, Clergy, Medical Staff, Knights, Dames, Auxiliary and other volunteers, assemble in front of the hotels. Gathered in our teams, we begin our procession to the Chapel of St. Bernadette. The procession itself is a sacred form of movement. In addition to the message of prayer, penance and bathing in the spring, Our Lady imparted to Bernadette a message for priests: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.” For modern pilgrims, the procession is a sacred way
of preparing together for the blessedness of the activities ahead. Team Captains hold up their colored flags to lead the procession. Charioteers pull the voitures, carriages that allow the Malades to travel easily from place to place. Our Clergy are with us every step of the way.
At the chapel, we share in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Then we proceed into the Morning of Recollection. The priests share 40-minute talks that bring us deeper into the spirit of God’s love and set the tone for our time in Lourdes. The Malades are seated in the front, and other pilgrims keep a careful watch to make sure the Malades and Caregivers have everything they need.
In the back of the chapel are raised, stadium-style seats. While some priests are sharing their talks, others disperse throughout the back, where everyone is invited to meet with a priest for Confession. It’s an extraordinary experience as we bring our hurts, brokenness and struggles into that day. Both individually and collectively, we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in and through us in this powerful setting. John Norris, who journeyed to Lourdes as a Malade last year with his wife, Eileen, as his Caregiver, summed up the spiritual feeling of the Pilgrimage this way: “You could feel the power of so many people. You could feel how holy it was.”
After lunch, Malades and Caregivers gather again and process to the baths, often accompanied by priests. In the waters of which Our Lady said to Bernadette, “Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself there!” they are refreshed and renewed. It is difficult to express the profound physical, emotional and spiritual experience of the baths. Once you enter the dressing area, you have a minute of privacy to wrap yourself in a modest towel. After stepping into the cold water and facing the statue of Our Lady, pilgrims enter into a moment of deep prayer for themselves and others. You are then immersed into the healing waters and enjoy a final time of prayer. Many experience moments of profound personal revelation.
From this blessed event, we move to the Carmel side of the St. Bernadette Chapel for Mass and the Anointing of the Sick. All the priests are present, concelebrating and anointing Malades, Caregivers and others. The lead celebrants approach the Malades and Caregivers directly. Other priests fan out within the chapel. Lines are formed, and the other pilgrims are anointed as they seek spiritual and physical strength for illness and suffering. It is a powerful moment as the priest administers the sacrament, conveying God’s grace to the recipient through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The crowning event of this first full day is the Marian Candlelight Procession. When Our Lady asked Bernadette to spend a fortnight in the Grotto, Bernadette approached with a lighted candle. We follow in that tradition when pilgrims from all around the world gather near the Grotto at dusk carrying lighted candles. The procession travels around the Domain, which is the area that surrounds the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The statue of Our Lady is carried at the front of the procession. As darkness falls and the pilgrims recite the Rosary in many different languages and sing Ave Maria, the light from the candles creates a golden glow. With the bodies barely visible in the darkness, the candles highlight the serenity on each pilgrim’s face.
In the days that follow, our priests continue to guide us through a range of scheduled activities. Each day many of us gather for morning prayer, which begins with a reading and reflection led by a priest. We also have a Malade in Spirit program. Each team prays daily for those Malades who are with us in spirit but unable to be with us in person.
On Saturday, the Tri-Association Grotto Mass is concelebrated by the priests from all three associations. It is a deeply moving experience as the priests celebrate the liturgy where the Blessed Mother was seen by Bernadette. The first of the Spiritual Reflection Groups takes place on Saturday as does the Eucharistic Procession. All priests participate in the Eucharistic Procession,
leading us to Adoration and Benediction in St. Pius X Basilica, a unique underground church that holds up to 30,000 people.
The International Mass at St. Pius X Basilica is celebrated on Sunday morning, with pilgrims from around the world. Attendees are deeply moved by the procession of all the priests into the church. Monday brings the closing Mass in the Rosary Basilica, the outdoor Stations of the Cross and the second Spiritual Reflection Groups.
Everyone who makes the Pilgrimage with the American Association will tell you the focus of the week is the Malades and Caregivers. “We are there to make their experience one of knowing God and God’s love for them,” said Msgr. Ritchie. “Everything is subservient to that, including our own comfort and taking care of ourselves.” However, there are times when the Knights, Dames, Auxiliary and other volunteers can reflect, pray and participate in programs that enhance their own spirituality, and those opportunities have grown.
Last year, under the leadership of Co-Chairs Donna and Tom O’Brien, Msgr. Ritchie, and Fr. Joseph Cavoto, OFM, a clinical social worker and a spiritual director, participation in the Spiritual Reflection Groups was expanded to include sessions for all the pilgrims.
Facilitated by priests and others, the reflection groups take place twice during the week and had previously been reserved for Malades and Caregivers. “Part of being a member of the Order of Malta is strengthening our own spirituality,” Donna said. “Having an opportunity to reflect on the experience of the Pilgrimage helps us as we work toward that goal. It’s particularly valuable for first-time pilgrims as it is all so fast-paced and new that you don’t have the time for personal reflection.” The sessions are open and all are strongly encouraged to participate.
For Jim and Cynthia Fagan, participation in one of the reflection groups was a profound experience. It was the second trip for Jim, who is a Knight, and the first for Cynthia, who is in her Year of Preparation. “We live such busy lives,” Cynthia said. “The group sessions were a time for us to sit and reflect and think about what moves us spiritually.” For Jim, participating in the reflection group with Cynthia brought a revelation. Both Jim and Cynthia volunteer for their parish, and Jim has worked in other service areas, but they had been doing this work separately. “Suddenly I asked myself why I had been doing this work alone instead of with my wife of 27 years,” Jim said. “I was so fortunate to have that kind of awakening moment, the most emotional moment of the week.”
Another expansion of opportunities for pilgrims to enhance their spiritual lives grew out of the actions of a few individuals. Mary Beth and Bill Fessler, who were the 2015 Co-Chairs, had been quietly, along with a small group, going to the Grotto at midnight to pray the rosary before retiring for the night. Word spread, and last year the Fesslers were encouraged to expand the group. “Donna asked if we would be willing to have others go with us and to organize other opportunities for personal prayer,” Mary Beth said. “We set up trips to special places in Lourdes for spiritual reflection, such as the Stations of the Cross or the Grotto during quiet times.” Bill encourages pilgrims to find opportunity for prayer even in moments they might not normally think of. “You’re learning another way to pray as you journey with your Malade,” he said. “Working with your Malade, in that moment of service, is also a prayer.”
The Order of Malta Pilgrimage to Lourdes is a shared time of prayer, of laughter, and of grace. Led by our spiritual team, we practice charity, care, compassion and love for our neighbor. We seek and find opportunities to enhance our own spirituality. And we bring ourselves into a spirit of deeper and more generous Christian devotion.
This article was originally published in the Hospitallers, Volume 17, Spring 2017.
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