On a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Lourdes

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Bishop Dennis Sullivan and Father Michael Romano, priest secretary, went on a pilgrimage with the Knights and Dames of Malta to Our Lady of Lourdes, France, May 3-9. Father Romano sent a series of reports while there. Following is a condensed version.

Pilgrims pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France. Below: Bishop Dennis Sullivan and Father Phillip Johnson. Both priests accompanied a group of pilgrims to the shrine.
Photos by Father Michael Romano

Day 1

Through the invitation and generosity of the Knights and Dames of Malta, Bishop Dennis Sullivan and I left from JFK Airport yesterday for a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France to serve as chaplains to some of the “malades” (ill people). Our total group numbered 405 on the flight.

Bishop Sullivan and I are part of a team, which is made up of seven malades and their caretakers, assistants, leaders, hosts and a medical team.

Once in Lourdes following some informational meetings, we all went in procession for Mass at the church of Our Lady of the Rosary. The Mass was for all of those on the Order of Malta pilgrimage from the United States’ chapters. All told, we are over 1,000 pilgrims.

One of the things that struck me early on is how the doctors and nurses on this pilgrimage are using a week of their vacation time to accompany the malades on pilgrimage here. The joy they exude, the selfless manner in which they look for any way to help others and their prayerful spirit are an inspiration.

Day 2

Our time today in Lourdes centered around healing.

The day began with a morning of recollection praying the Rosary, time in adoration and listening to inspiring homilies. Throughout the morning 10 priests and bishops were available for the pilgrims to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Each of those priests and bishops remained in place for over two hours because so many availed themselves of this sacrament.

The early afternoon was dedicated for the malades to bathe in the waters at Lourdes. With their caregivers and assistants, they were taken to the Shrine’s baths, where they could bring their intentions and pray for whatever particular intention of healing they brought with them.

In the later afternoon, Bishop Sullivan celebrated Mass for our group of over 400 pilgrims which included the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

The day concluded with an incredible candle light procession and praying of the Rosary with thousands of other pilgrims from throughout the world.

While the word Catholic means universal, sometimes the Catholic world can seem so small. After finishing Mass, Bishop Sullivan spotted Janet Johnson, the wife of Father Phillip Johnson. She led us to him and his group of pilgrims who happened to be visiting Lourdes.

Day 3

Our day began with Mass in the grotto where our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette, a poor peasant girl. Out of that cave, so simple in appearance, came those healing waters and the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. The silence prior to the Mass was remarkable, where all we pilgrims could hear was the rushing waters of the river behind us and the chirping of the birds. In his homily, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York spoke of the candles in the grotto and the role candles have to provide light and heat.

Referencing the windy night we had last evening for the candlelight procession and how we all had to help each other relight our candles when the wind blew them out, Cardinal Dolan spoke about how sometimes our lives of faith can grow dimmer and lukewarm. However, just as we assisted each other with the candles, we Christians are called to rekindle one another in the faith — when our light is burning brightly, we can bring that light to another in need; when ours isn’t burning quite so brightly, we can be inspired and encouraged by someone else.

Something has already happened in these days to our group. While no one seems to have received a physical healing, the spirit of the group is so light and positive…it is palpable.

Day 4

The most striking thing to happen each day is at meals. The conversation is so uplifting. At each table, the talk is not of banal things, but rather of faith, of the Lord, of Our Lady. And despite the struggles each of us may be going through, those three topics put everything in perspective. After a few more days with table conversations like that, who won’t return home on fire once again for Christ and his Church? And then Mary will have done exactly what she wanted: she will have drawn us closer to her Son.

The Knights and Dames of Malta continue to give great witness that this week is all about the malades and no one else. One man said to me this evening that joining the Order of Malta has made him feel like he is doing what he was taught to do from his parents as a child. His success in business only brought him so far, where he asked himself, “Is this really it?” Then, filling up with tears, he said that these pilgrimages and the ability to bring sick people and care for them all week, remind him there is something more and that he can be a part of it. How true for every single one of us, if we can just be open to discovering how the Lord is inviting us to take a part.

Day 5

Our last full day of our pilgrimage ended where it began, at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, and what a different experience it was! Our opening Mass had a bunch of pilgrims worn out from our overnight flight, yet excited for what was to come. Our closing Mass had a bunch of pilgrims grateful for the many graces received over these days. The highlight, for sure, was seeing two young malades from our group receive the sacrament of confirmation. It was hard to find a dry eye among us during that. It was a beautiful experience.

Following Mass, we all strolled the Way of the Cross. Pondering Christ’s passion, death and resurrection brought home the fact that, in reality, every single one of us is a malade in need of Christ’s love and mercy. So many of the Stations struck me, but none more than the fourth, when Christ meets his mother. I couldn’t help but think of the parents of the children malades among us, so great is their suffering … and their love.

Selfless service. That is the witness I take with me from this pilgrimage. In a world too full of selfishness, self-centeredness and pride, I was blessed to see men and women giving of themselves in selfless service to those less fortunate, solely with the desire that the other experience the loving mercy of God and the tender closeness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is certainly an example I need to follow in my priesthood and something in which all of us could grow.