Brentwood pilgrims experience Lourdes joy

At the end of July 217 young people and leaders from the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service supported many adult pilgrims with varying needs on the Brentwood Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. They were accompanied by Bishop Alan Williams, Fr Dominic Howarth, the newly ordained Fr Gary Dench and Deacon Paschal Uche and other clergy and seminarians. “It was a week infused with faith and joy,” says Fr Dominic. “The young people came from 46 different parishes and will talk to parishioners about their experiences on National Youth Sunday later in the year.”

As part of the BCYS offering to the whole Diocese a group of young adults filmed sections of each day, and packaged these as “Virtual Pilgrimage” highlights, so that parishioners from across the Diocese could “join” the pilgrimage, albeit from a distance. Highlights included the Marian (torchlight) procession and Mass at the Grotto and a homily from Fr Gary.

Says Fr Dominic: “We know this is a popular offering – last year there were around 3,000 people watching each new clip. It is especially helpful, we hope, for housebound parishioners who may be too ill or frail to travel, but who welcome access to the spirituality of Lourdes.” The “Virtual Pilgrimage” includes the homily from each of the pilgrimage Masses, as well as other daily highlights. It can still be viewed at

The young people on the pilgrimage were encouraged in Fr Dominic’s opening homily to get to know the pilgrims they were accompanying. “Spend time looking into the faces of pilgrims 50, 60 or 70 years older than you. There you will meet the face of Christ.” He referred to the Face App, which predicts what a person will look like in decades to come. “It is not your beauty regime, however elaborate that will shape your face in 50 years’ time but the life you lead and the place of Christ in that life. Be joyful and you will get laughter lines; worry and they will be lines of stress. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you look like, now or then. What matters is who you are. To Christ you are beloved – yes, even without, perhaps especially without, the concealer, the make-up, the potions, you are beloved. And that will be true forever.”

Referring to the day’s gospel reading about Martha and Mary – one working and one listening – he said: “You can learn from the pilgrims about marriage, relationships, life, so listen and look into their faces, put your phone away and hear their stories. You are going to be Martha this week but make sure you make time to be Mary too.”

Viv and Maisie Williams travelled from Danbury and South Woodham Ferrers parish. Viv, a nurse at Broomfield Hospital, was part of the medical team, while her daughter Maisie was part of the BCYS group. Says Viv: “It was a wonderful and very warm week. Highlights included an opening Mass in the Rosary Basilica with over 200 young people, some providing musical accompaniment and beautiful singing. The Brentwood Mass in the Grotto was simply wonderful.”

Director of Music Andrew Wright and Assistant Director Art Wangcharoensab were there to direct the music.  Says Art: “It was an amazing week in Lourdes with incredibly talented and enthusiastic groups from BCYS and Brentwood Diocese. It was also a pleasure to assist in leading all the groups made up of Year 13s.”

Pilgrims also experienced the baths, high and low Stations of the Cross, a candlelit procession around the domain on a lovely warm evening and a Blessed Sacrament Procession in the underground Basilica, says Viv. “The pilgrims, especially the assisted pilgrims all said how much they had enjoyed the week – many are returning visitors, year on year. It is a well-organised, thoughtful and sometimes lively trip. I would recommend it to others.”

She adds: “Everyone there was there for the same reason – it didn’t matter what you looked like, how old you were, what nationality you were. And you didn’t worry about what was going on in the world or what you had to get from the supermarket – it was a world away from that.”

She has already booked up for next year – as has Maisie, her daughter, who says: “I think what I enjoyed most about it was meeting loads of new people who were all very welcoming and enthusiastic. I went with several friends from school (she attends Brentwood Ursuline).”

Steven Webb, Director of Development for the Diocese, was also on the pilgrimage. “To travel together as a diocese to Lourdes is always a wonderful experience and we hear stories of many vocations that have strong connections with it. Spending several days together with people we may not have previously known is a wonderful way for us to become a more integrated diocese. It is hard to fully express the real beauty of watching our young people assist and care for our assisted pilgrims and the joy that connection brings to both.”

He particularly appreciated the beauty of the liturgies. “They were a great credit to everyone concerned but particularly our priests, deacons, seminarians and the musicians. It was a great joy to hear our very newly ordained deacon, Rev Paschal Uche, and our very recently ordained priest, Fr Gary Dench (left), preach and be reminded of the blessing that they represent.”

He added: “I doubt very much that anyone who goes on this pilgrimage returns unchanged by the experience. As we prayed, talked and worshipped together, I was reminded of the close links between many of our Strands of Renewal in our Diocesan Vision for the future. Each is important of itself but when combined and overlapped they become so much more together. “

He said: “I would like to thank everyone involved and encourage anyone who has not been to consider it for the future.”

One BCYS member felt inspired to blog about her Lourdes’ experience: Hannah had been feeling a bit lost at university and got a last minute opportunity to accompany Fr Bob Hamill’s special needs group to Lourdes. Being with people “who live for every moment and find joy in everything they do” really helped her find her own way again, she says. Read more here:

Others found the pilgrimage equally fulfilling.  Martyna tweeted: “Thank you for organising Lourdes 2019! This was my first time going and I came there with no expectations and I was blown away! This week was more than amazing and I’ve never felt so much at peace and closer to God. Everyone was so nice and I had the best time!”

One parent added on twitter: “Thank you to all the leaders of the Year 13 group, and especially Fr Dominic, for giving Michael the opportunity to go with you all. He knew only one person when he went to Lourdes, and came back knowing everyone! He had a fabulous and very spiritually uplifting experience.”

View the virtual pilgrimage clips at

Fr Gary Dench preaching at the Grotto Mass