500 celebrate ‘joyful and faith-filled’ pilgrimage in Lourdes

Brentwood’s Centenary Pilgrimage to Lourdes took place at the end of July, when more than 500 people journeyed to the shrine for four days of prayer, togetherness and celebration. The pilgrimage broke new ground this year in that the youth media team provided a virtual pilgrimage on the BCYS website and social media for those unable to attend.

Fr Dominic Howarth, Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Formation, parish priest at Basildon and a prime organiser of the event on the youth side, said: “The Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes is always a joyful and faith-filled time. This year 219 young people and leaders accompanied and assisted more than 300 adult pilgrims on the trip, including 50 who needed wheelchair assistance. During the week a young “media team” recorded each of the homilies, as well as short clips and insights from Bishop Alan, pilgrimage director Fr Paul Keane, priests, seminarians and youth pilgrims that give an excellent flavour of the pilgrimage. They are a wonderful resource, and I commend them to all those who have never been to Lourdes.”

The theme of the pilgrimage this year was ‘the Almighty has done great things for me’, an extract from The Magnificat, Our Lady’s prayer when she visited her cousin Elizabeth.

In the opening Mass, Fr Stephen Myers (right), Episcopal Vicar for Education and parish priest at Dagenham, said that Lourdes changes things for those who visit. “It was actually at the grotto that I made the decision to apply for the priesthood,” he recalled.  “Many people would be incredulous about the fact that here the sick and the needy have priority and that hundreds of young people pay money to come here, not for sun, sand and sangria but to work hard and pray hard.”

Sharing and caring are at the core of pilgrimage, he said. “I invite you to be ‘deep-drenched’ in love, happiness, joy and celebration as we come together for this wonderful experience.”

Bishop Alan Williams SM, as ever, was very involved in the days that followed, sharing time, insights and empathy with the pilgrims and the young people, with whom he has a remarkable affinity. Many will remember the picture of the Bishop sharing their gruelling overnight vigil in the rain at World Youth Day in Poland. His popularity with them was encapsulated in a Lourdes tweet which saw them literally singing his praises. Another recorded his encouraging words to them: “The way you have met our adult pilgrims is transforming – for you and for them.”

He said: “Lourdes is a special place of pilgrimage – everyone is welcome, particularly those who are sick or struggling. My hope for pilgrims to Lourdes is always that something will change in their lives – a ‘conversion’ that brings them closer to God, to themselves along with a little bit of healing, as they move ‘through Mary to Jesus’.”

At the Grotto Mass (below) he encouraged pilgrims to follow ‘missionary apostles’ St James and St Bernadette in ‘showing the life of Christ’. “At the end of the pilgrimage, others will see the gentleness, the love, the mercy of Christ in you,” he said.

During the week, the young people assisted the older pilgrims as they visited the baths, took part in the torchlight procession, reconciliation service and Mass of anointing, before everyone came together for a garden party on the last evening. Many spoke of the family atmosphere that the pilgrimage engenders. Said one BCYS member: “Lourdes is a really joyous place to be. We make new relationships with a real variety of people.”

In his homily at the final Centenary Mass, Fr Dominic talked movingly about the need for compassion and outreach to those groups which, like Mary’s previously barren cousin Elizabeth, are shunned or are on the edges of society, such as LGBT groups, immigrants and refugees, and those using foodbanks, the poor and the needy. People may feel physically, emotionally or spiritually lonely, he said.  “When Mary sings in The Magnificat about God exalting the lowly, she is singing for all of us who feel weak in any way, feel outcast or on the edges. It is a prayer that is revolution, a call of radical inclusion to anyone who is on the margins. The challenge of The Magnificat is to believe it, to live it and to transform reality, infusing it with eternity and thus creating a world of love that reaches to the raw edges of life.”

He said Pope Francis encourages young people to listen to different generations and learn from them. “That has happened here,” he said. “To put it another way, here in Lourdes, Mary encounters Elizabeth every time a young person sees a pilgrim in need of assistance and spends time chatting, discovering and sharing with them. Here in Lourdes, the Lord lifts up the lonely, young and elderly, with courage and with hope. So pray The Magnificat regularly, and illuminated by the spirit of Lourdes and St Bernadette, let these words inspire and enrich the way you live, for yourselves and those around you – raw reality infused with eternity.”

Bishop Alan has the last word in one of the virtual pilgrimage clips: “If you have not been to Lourdes or you are half thinking of it, take a step into the water, a step towards Our Lady and see what happens. The invitation is there and the change in your life will be remarkable.”

The video clips – which also include a very moving interview with Fr Bob Hamill who has dedicated his life to those with special needs – all remain online, so you can take yourself to Lourdes at any time. You will find them all at www.bcys.net/resources.