Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Grottoes: The Pilgrimage to Lourdes

The Grotto at Lourdes

The Grotto at the University of Notre Dame

For nine years, way back in my past, I served as Rector at Breen-Phillips Hall on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.  The Rector lives in community with undergraduates, and is afforded the unique and often wonderful opportunity to be witness to very special moments of growth in their lives.  One of the things I learned almost immediately upon beginning my tenure there, was that a place called "The Grotto" played a very significant role in their spiritual formation.  I cannot accurately count the number of times students yelling to each other down the hallway: “I’m going to say a prayer at the grotto” or “Let’s go to the dining hall early so we can swing by the grotto first and light a candle.”  Late night grotto visits during exams, or during times of crisis in the lives of our students are customary and habitual.  It would be unthinkable for an alumnus to visit campus without paying a visit to the grotto to light a candle, or to offer a prayer.  Visitors to the grotto on a football weekend would be hard pressed to find an unlit candle to offer up for a victory.  During senior week, the grotto teems with graduates-to-be during the now iconic "Last Visit to the Grotto" service.  The grotto has also seen its share of marriage proposals during the final weeks of term. I have been asked, on numerous occasions, to light a candle for a friend or family member at the grotto.  It is, without question, the most sacred place on Notre Dame’s campus.

Yet, Notre Dame's grotto is actually a replica of another, located in Lourdes, in the south of France at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains.  At this location, in 1858, Our Lady made numerous appearances to a 14 year old girl by the name of Bernadette Soubirous.  During one appearance, when Bernadette asked the lady to name herself, she revealed that she was the Immaculate Conception.  The Lady also told her that a chapel should be built on the spot and a procession formed.  When the Church determined that these visions were authentic appearances of our Blessed Mother, Lourdes did indeed become a major pilgrimage site, and is so to this very day.

Fr. Sorin, our founder, along with Fr. Moreau, visited Lourdes on numerous occasions, and vowed to build the replica grotto on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The ND grotto, while closely resembling the one at Lourdes, is actually about 1/7th the size, and contains within it an actual stone from the original.  The official name of the Notre Dame site is The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. In an article written by then Fr. and now Bishop Dan Jenky, one reads that the very first pilgrimage to Lourdes from outside of France was by Holy Cross Priests from the University of Notre Dame.  I've posted a photo below of the oldest know photograph of the Notre Dame Grotto, from 1896.


It only makes sense then, that we, as part of the Notre Dame family, associated with the University dedicated to our Blessed Mother, feel a strong connection to Our Lady of Lourdes.  I know I have been drawn to Lourdes ever since my first visit to the Notre Dame Grotto on campus in 1986--so much so that I have now just completed my second pilgrimage to that holy site.  Despite the fact that this experience takes an immense toll on body and soul, I plan to go back next year, and as often as God and my pocketbook will allow it.

As the Director of Student Affairs here at the Notre Dame Global Gateway in London, I had often considered making the trip to Lourdes, since travelling to France is much more accessible and affordable from Britain than from the US.  Prior to my first trip, I spoke with several colleagues who visited previously.  They stated that it was crowded, touristy, and full of shops selling cheap religious items, and therefore, they were unimpressed.  However, I then had a conversation with a colleague who visits annually as a volunteer, and has done so for years. Like many of us, this person is a bit weary when speaking of the day to day routines of work and life in general, yet, when relating his experiences in Lourdes, he seems a different person, speaking with an earnest intensity and conveying a clear sense of purpose, passion and devotion.  I was convinced that if I were to visit, it would have to be on a working pilgrimage in aid of the sick, and not as a tourist.

Newman House Group at St. Savin, Lourdes 2017
Many dioceses here in Great Britain journey to Lourdes in the summer on such working pilgrimages.  Our own diocese of Westminster, which is the seat of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, holds a massive pilgrimage each July.  Those who are sick or disabled are welcome to go for the week.  The diocese is then totally dependent upon volunteers who are willing to spend their own money and time that week caring for these pilgrims so that they can do something they could not possibly do on their own.  Additionally, because this event is so very important to the faithful of the diocese, the Cardinal, Bishops and many of the clergy come along as well, in order to pray with and assist all participants during their week in Lourdes.

Walking down the steep hill after Mass at the Cathedral in the Trees
Lourdes 2017
Last year, on my first pilgrimage, I joined up with the Newman House students and traveled with them to Lourdes as part of the Westminster Pilgrimage.  Newman House is the chaplaincy for Universities located in the Diocese.  They traditionally work with a lot of other carers in the Accueil Marie Sainte Frai.  Accueil means “Place of Welcome”, and the building is structured a bit like a hospital in order to accommodate those who suffer from illnesses and disabilities.  Some of the Westminster carers meet with the sick here in London, help load them onto the plane, accompany them to Lourdes, and to the St. Frai where they are housed in a ward-like setting.  Carers are then assigned to an Assisted Pilgrim for the week.  The Assisted Pilgrims suffer from a range of maladies, but have one thing in common:  they are really not able to move about independently and therefore require assistance during their week-long stay.  The carers’ responsibilities include arriving at the St. Frai around 6:00am, waking their assisted pilgrim and helping them to bathe, toilet and dress for breakfast and be ready in time to depart for a scheduled event.  The responsibilities in the evening are similar, staying with them until they go to bed. During the daytime, we accompany them to whatever events they wish to attend. 

Cardinal Nichols anoints
Cardinal Cormack Murphy O'Connor
at the Anointing of the Sick Service in 2016
The diocesan pilgrimage events each day include services such as Anointing of the Sick, Masses at Bernadette’s Parish Church, or at the underground Basilica or the Cathedral of the Trees, a Torchlight Procession, a trip to the baths to bathe in the holy water of the Grotto, an outing to the beautiful village of St. Savin in the Pyrenees for a picnic and Mass, a Reconciliation service, an evening talent show at the end of the week and the closing Mass at the Grotto, where the large candle for the diocese is blessed, then taken across the River Gav to be lit.  It is also possible that the person for whom one is caring might want to go out for a coffee (there is an amazing Italian cafĂ© right by the St. Frai, serving the best coffee I’ve ever had), or a drink or some ice-cream.  Or perhaps they want to shop for gifts.  They may want to visit the Grotto, and get some holy water to take home.  It is the duty of the carers to accompany the person so that he or she can be as independent as possible.

Drinking the best coffee ever with
Newman House Students
at the Italian Cafe
Lourdes 2017
I returned after my first year serving as a carer at the St. Frai both physically and emotionally drained to such an extent that it took me a long time to recover.   The days in Lourdes begin very early and end extremely late. The physical labor was intensive beyond measure.  Some mornings, I was unable to stand up straight when getting out of bed, because my back was such a mess. The emotional toll was even more extreme, and I often found myself in tears during that week following my return from the Grotto.  It is difficult to detail what such an experience requires from one personally, as the carer is constantly confronted with individuals struggling with illnesses and disabilities, and is intimately involved with some who are obviously in the final stages of their earthly journey, and trying to come to grips with this reality.  At times, just being present in the ward was so overwhelming that I wanted to run and hide somewhere, and not have to confront what was clearly a fear of my own mortality.

I was fortunate that the person assigned to me on my first journey to Lourdes was a former Headmistress of a primary school.  After trying, somewhat clumsily and therefore, unsuccessfully, to help on that initial morning, I finally said to her: “I think you’ll have to tell what to do and how it needs to be done.”  That was the key—and she fell right into Headmistress role.  Of course, there were times when I was not able to assist by myself.  Unfortunately, I injured my back years ago, and this makes me practically useless when trying to do any sort of lifting, or pushing a wheelchair. However, the ward is run by amazing and competent doctors and nurses from Westminster who also volunteer their vacation time to help the pilgrims of the St. Frai.  They do the serious medical stuff, and when there were things that I was unable to do, they were right there to do it, or to teach me how.

At St. Savin with my friend Ann.
Lourdes 2016
Mid-week, the person for whom I was caring was feeling very tired, and opted not to go to an evening pilgrimage event.  I made us both a cup of tea, brought in some chocolate biscuits and sat in the ward chatting with her.  It was there I learned about her very interesting life, and told her a bit about mine.  Then we had an exchange that has stuck with me ever since—and also helped me through my second pilgrimage, which I just concluded.  I told her that night that I was touched by her reaction to me that first morning.  When I came into that ward at 6:15am on Monday, a total stranger to her, she trusted me to help her toilet, bathe and dress.  These are things that would normally cause embarrassment, or even humiliation, but her attitude was so straightforward that it allowed me to get on with the work without feeling hesitant or unduly uncomfortable.  She then told me that when she realized she was going to need help for the rest of her life, she knew that she could either opt to be cantankerous and ill-tempered, thereby making everyone around her miserable, and making it difficult for them to assist her, or, she could accept her situation, and, by the way she interacted with people, make it easier for them to lend her the care she needed. It was really quite obvious and simple, yet a huge lesson for me.  I only hope I can replicate this attitude when the time comes that I find myself needing that sort of charity.   She is straight forward and matter-of-fact about her illness and the effects of it on her body.  If she had been embarrassed, angry or sullen whenever she needed help, it would have made it nearly impossible for me, and I might have packed it up and gone home.  She accepted the cards that have been dealt to her with a certain sense of grace.  Not an easy thing to do.  This was part of my deep learning experience at Lourdes.  It is so important to dampen one’s pride, and in so doing, graciously accept help.  I have concluded that “swallowing one’s pride” is probably the most difficult thing to do when one reaches a stage in life where he or she is disabled or ill--at least I know it will be that way for me.  I suspect it is all too easy to resent needing someone's assistance to do everyday and ordinary things.  None of us wants to think about a time when we are not independent.  Now middle-aged, I am beginning to think about those things a lot, and it is so much more real to me then it was when I was in my 20's.  

Our gal Sasha with Cardinal Nichols and
my co-carer Alejandra at the St. Frai.  Lourdes 2017
Upon returning home from my first pilgrimage last year, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my week there and thinking of the many reasons that people make the sojourn to Lourdes.  Folks from every nation and corner of the world go to the Grotto, with a variety of different motives. One morning, I was filling my water bottle with the holy water from the spring and there was a woman next to me who offered to let me use her tap, as mine wasn’t really working.  I turned to look at her, and she had a wagon, with huge containers, most already full of the holy water.  She was suffering a horrible skin condition over her entire body.  I surmised from our exchange that she was bathing in the waters, and praying for a cure to her condition.  I expect some do come hoping for that miraculous cure, and, in fact, the Lourdes Medical Bureau is currently investigating such a case to see if it can be verified by the Church.  Some of the pilgrims who we cared for last year have since passed away, and perhaps they came to Lourdes to pray for acceptance and peace as they approach the end of their earthly journey.  Others come for the community and the prayer, and to see old friends from past pilgrimages.  I was astounded to meet people who have been coming religiously for many years.  I also met pilgrims who venture to Lourdes merely because they are unable to travel on their own, and this gives them an opportunity to have a bit of a vacation and some fun, instead of being house-bound.

Those who volunteer as carers also have a multitude of reasons for participating.  Again, I was surprised to meet people who have been assisting for years.  What commitment! They use precious vacation time to do it, and, despite being volunteers, the trip is quite costly.  The prodigious dedication of this group of carers is amazing.

A selfie of  some of my 
favorite St. Frai Volunteers,
Lourdes 2017
I struggle to explain why it is important for me to participate in this experience.  I confess that I don't come back on some sort of "high", or experience any feelings of euphoria, as we used to at the end of a religious retreat.  Nor do I have the inclination to pat myself on the back for doing something good.  Admittedly, there are some obvious great things that have come from my two trips to Lourdes:  I have met a group of fantastic people that I didn't know before, and to be honest, we have a tremendous amount of fun--socializing and having a laugh. Late night drinks with comrades at the Roi Albert are a highlight at the end of a long shift. Additionally, Lourdes and the surrounding area are beautiful, and I love the trip to the stunningly gorgeous St. Savin. But there's something much more profound going on with the pilgrimage. I am driven to participate because it presents a rare opportunity to be selfless, as I think we are all called to be.  As a single person, I am really only responsible to and for myself, and am always in danger of tending towards self-immersion.  I note that I am sometimes dangerously stingy with my time, energies and talents. I do not question that we are put here on this earth to serve God and each other, but I have to admit that I don’t always feel like doing that.  Once you arrive at the St. Frai, however, you are not given a choice, and you have to jump in with both feet.  There is simply no time to think about yourself when you are on shift. I even leave my mobile phone behind at the desk when working on the ward--and I don't even miss it.  More significantly, I discovered during both pilgrimages, that I was forced to confront my own faith, and closely examine what I really believe.  It was as if someone (or Someone) was asking me to put my money where my mouth is.  Articulating beliefs and expounding about how one should live one's life are simple and straightforward tasks--and I can quote Catholic Social Tradition with the best of them.  The Pharisees were also expert when it came to instructing others how they should live.  In Lourdes, as a carers at the St. Frai, I think we are truly living out the mandates of the Gospel, even if only for a brief week. What many volunteers will take away after a week in Lourdes is something so deep, and so profound, that it is difficult to coherently and accurately convey (as evidenced here in this somewhat rambling blog). We spend six days working intensely with others and I believe it gives us a deep insight into how we are to be the people God created us to be.  So, yes, it is profound--but the realization is also frightening in the extreme.  I have just written paragraphs about how difficult this experience is, at least for me, while simultaneously admitting that we are called to be this way at all times, and not just for one week of the year in the south of France.  Lourdes affords us an insight into who we are meant to be at our very core, and brings us to the stark realization that it will not and cannot be a simple or painless journey. Selflessness can be onerous and burdensome, and does not often come naturally.  I try to use my own Lourdes experiences to frame my life, and sometimes when I find myself tending a bit towards my own self-centered needs, my time at the Grotto helps me to re-focus. Unfortunately, I'm not always successful. Fortunately, there's the Sacrament of Reconciliation--but we'll save that for another blog.
Selfie with carer and famous Actor
Alex Macqueen, who said I could
use his photo to recruit ND students
to come on pilgrimage.  He volunteers at the St. Frai too.


Lourdes, Students and Notre Dame

Newman House folks dining at
our Hotel Metropole.
 Lourdes 2017
It occurred to me after my first pilgrimage that this is an experience that should be made easily available to Notre Dame students, given our intimate and obvious connection to the Grotto.  I am aware of many student pilgrimages from Notre Dame to various sites around the world, but I have not come across any to Lourdes.  As someone who works directly with students as an employee of Notre Dame International, I saw an obvious opportunity to present this experience to our cohort of study abroad students.  There are some logistical problems in that one needs at least a week to work on an actual pilgrimage, and I didn’t see our London study abroad students being able to give that sort of time during their academic term. Additionally, there aren’t pilgrimages during the winter months because, I suspect, Lourdes is underneath quite a bit of snow at that time.  Therefore, when I went back to campus on a work trip last spring, I invited pre-med students who will be studying abroad at our London Global Gateway this fall, to consider going on pilgrimage with us in July, prior to their semester of study.  I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to travel from London to Lourdes with the other university students from Newman House, giving them a week in a ward, meeting and working with pilgrims who are suffering from a variety of physical illnesses and disabilities.  They would also have the opportunity to pray at the original Grotto, attend the pilgrimage services, and even bathe in the baths if they wished.  The bonus is that when they return to study in the autumn, they would have already met and gotten to know a lot of other local university students.  Getting our Notre Dame students outside of the rather insular nature of our London program is difficult, and this seemed a great way to give someone a head start.  It also probably goes without saying that a pilgrimage to Lourdes helping the infirmed and disabled is something that hits at the very heart of our mission.

Notre Dame Student Lexi and
London based student Ollie on
our way to Lourdes via train, 2017.
This type of trip is a very big commitment for any Notre Dame student preparing to study in London for four months. They've already had to purchase a round-trip flight to the UK.  Those who will serve as interns during their study abroad time will have to put out over $500 for a visa in order to work. Also, quite simply, London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and so most students are trying to save up so that they can have a fantastic immersive experience and not be limited by lack of funds.  I realize that asking them to purchase another round trip ticket for the month before, as well as forking out the £400 pilgrimage fee is asking a lot.  Even so, this year, one student took me up on the offer.  She flew into London and we put her up at Conway Hall, our student resident for a few nights to help her with her jet lag. Then she accompanied about 20 other students from local London Universities and the Newman House staff on the journey to Lourdes.

One of our students took me up on the offer to write a bit about why this pilgrimage experience is so important and meaningful:

I met Ollie last year when I to Lourdes.  Ollie is a local student here in London, studying Theology.  He generously responded to my invitation to speak a bit about Lourdes:

'What can Lourdes mean to a 22-year old Catholic guy? Well, the answer is a lot. This year being my fourth pilgrimage with my university chaplaincy, Lourdes has become a place very close to my heart. Not only is a place situated within the vast beauty of the Pyrenees, it is also a home away from home. Each time I go, I'm always struck at how easy it feels to be welcomed to Lourdes as part of the worldwide Catholic family. You can literally make your way to the Grotto and hear four or five languages pass you by. Lourdes is also a truly numinous place. The peace of God is so abundant in the air, and its status as a place of healing is no joke. It is without question that everybody brings some sort of wound to Lourdes, and goes home in a fundamentally better state. You get to meet Jesus in the sick, the sacraments and the many friends you'll meet on duty or in the bar. If you're feeling inspired by the Holy Spirit to go, do! It'll be the experience of a lifetime.'

I am hoping to get a couple of other written insights from our students, which I will add here in this place.

To conclude, I noted that there is something missing from this detailed account of our pilgrimages to Lourdes with the Diocese of Westminster.  Along with being exhausting, and emotionally draining, it is also an amazingly joyous experience and, quite simply, a tremendous amount of fun.  Both the Assisted Pilgrims and the Carers are amazing people, and it is a privilege to spend an entire week with them. I met more people in Lourdes in the two separate weeks that I visited than I have in the 3.5 years plus that I've lived in London.  And...I did something I almost never do:  took selfies...here I am with some of the Diocese of Westminster's "finest"...
with Bishop John
Lourdes 2017


With our Scottish pal Fr. Gerard, SJ
Lourdes 2017


With Fr. Stephen, Senior House Chaplain Newman House
Lourdes 2017







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