This coming September, from the 9th to the 14th, under the spiritual guidance of Bishop Deenihan and Fr Joseph Gallagher, I, along with many other volunteers, will depart Dublin Airport, to accompany between 150-170 hospital pilgrims, from all over the Diocese of Meath, to Lourdes.
This will be my seventh year to travel to Lourdes, as a nurse. Hopefully , this brief synopsis can shed some light on why I, along with hundreds of other helpers, go to Lourdes, and why it does have a beneficial purpose for both the sick pilgrims, and volunteers alike, who go.
Firstly, just to explain what exactly the pilgrimage consists of. Each year, over 150 sick pilgrims travel to Lourdes, and stay at the Accuiel Notre Dame, which is basically a modern day hospital, where they are cared for by the hundreds of helpers who accompany them. Female helpers are known as handmaids, male helpers as brancardiers.
Volunteers come from every single walk of life, you name it, they’e there. People from 17 to 75, give up their time and pay for their own fares, and they include students, doctors, nurses, teachers, paramedics, farmers, gardai, retired people and everyone in between. These people step out of their every day life and don a blue coat or a white coat, for the five day pilgrimage. The one thing everyone has in common, is that desire to bring joy, love and laughter to the hospital pilgrims under their care. These hospital pilgrims are people who without the Diocese of Meath would be unable to attempt to even travel to Lourdes. Many are elderly, disabled, frail, many have overcome serious illness, others have received devastating news about health issues. Some travel for the company as loneliness develops, some travel as due to the help provided, it is their only opportunity of a holiday. Many have never before in their lifetime, even left this country. There is not a place I have been to, where I have seen so many smiling faces. It is truly peaceful and it is a place where hospital pilgrims can relax, worry free, they have nothing to worry about within the walls of the sanctuary of Lourdes. They can relax and enjoy themselves, grow in faith and acceptance, where illness and disability does not control and define their lives.
The Hospilités in Lourdes are amazing places, where the sick, disabled and frail, can encounter this beautiful place, and receive the necessary healthcare at the same time. You see volunteers, pushing and pulling hospital pilgrims along, in wheelchairs and chariots, at all times of the day. Being fit and healthy, while being surrounded by such a high proportion of people who are clearly suffering, makes you very aware of yourself, and grateful. As human beings, we are all broken and in need of spiritual healing. We see this every day in Lourdes, in the concentration and the piety of the people attending Holy Mass, waiting for confession, those participating in the Rosary Procession, and in the late night silence when we encounter people in private prayer and reflection. Many people are in the darkest moments of their lives, perhaps even perilously close to the end. People who are internally struggling with family problems, grief, illness, or whatever else that makes life harder than it should be, get the space, time and permission, to look inwards, and to return home feeling loved, cared about and refreshed.
In Lourdes, volunteers are assigned a number of duties, depending on your own personal capabilities, these range from working in the wards, stewarding, assisting down at the baths, catering, cleaning, portering and so much more. Every day commences, with a 7am start, and all staff attend their own special staff Mass . This is my own personal favourite Mass of the day, it is my own personal space, to reflect, pray for strength and divine intervention for what the day will bring, to enable me to do my very best for the people under my care. Every day is different, with a number of Masses, ceremonies, the Lourdes baths, trips to the Grotto, shopping, parties and a torchlight procession all on the itinerary. And so much more. Our duty of care begins, from the moment all hospital pilgrims arrive at the GAA centre for the bus, to the moment the last hospital pilgrim is collected off the bus. After a hard days work, many volunteers head to the Solitude bar, for a refreshment or two, and it is very necessary to wind down after a long tiring day. The craic can be mighty!
This pilgrimage is about the hospital pilgrims, it is that moment of calm, peace and serenity that makes them forget their illness for a while, enjoy the weather, talk and confide in the helpers, tell them their story, and enlighten us with their years of experience. Each and every person has their own story, and to be privileged tp shared this, is the most beautiful thing in the world. From a helpers perspective , it helps me grow as a person. It is about helping people, knowing that a small kind deed, a few kind words and a listening ear, can make all the difference in these hospital pilgrim’s lives. The gratitude they express, over the smallest of things, is humbling. Where as, I am the one that should be grateful, i am privileged and humbled from the joy they bring to me.
None of this could possibly take place, without the tireless work that is carried out by this pilgrimages organisers, behind the scenes. The generosity and time given makes this happen. Our annual churchgate collection takes place this weekend, July 27th and 28th, and the generosity of the community , allows us to continue this work. We always welcome and encourage with open arms, the application of new volunteers. I recommend it in the highest regard. To truly understand the beauty, peace and joy in Lourdes volunteering, is to apply and experience it for yourself. You will be like us, and keep coming back. Please , if this is something you may consider, please don’t hesitate and contact Ann Boland or myself, Lisa Corrigan.