Seminarians on pilgrimage in Lourdes

Fathers Michael Romano and Adam Cichoski, with seminiarians of the Diocese of Camden, in Lourdes, France, where they have ministered to the sick, and worked alongside others while on pilgrimage.

On May 23 many of the seminarians of the Diocese of Camden, along with Fathers Michael Romano, vocation director, and Adam Cichoski, departed for a three week pilgrimage to work in Lourdes, France, and walk a part of the Camino de Santiago.

Below are selections from their reflections.

May 24, 6:32 p.m.

In spite of the jet lag and exhaustion, I joined Father Romano and a few of my seminarian brothers in the Rosary procession in front of the basilica here in Lourdes. It was amazing to walk and pray with people from different nations and backgrounds, and listening to each person responding in their own language and yet all of us were calling to our Blessed Mother for her intercession and we were praying for each other as one United Church, raising our candles in her honor and singing to her, the mother of us as Christian.

— Carlo Santa Teresa

May 25, 8:16 a.m.

We began our journey at JFK airport and celebrated our first Mass together with Father Romano and Father Adam. After our check in and lunch at JFK we took off from New York to Paris. I must confess it was fairly hard for me to sleep on the long plane ride over “the pond,” so I spent some time watching a movie, reading and praying. In my meditation on the plane I kept asking the Holy Spirit to guide me and my brothers during this pilgrimage, to not follow our own plan but to follow the Holy Spirit’s plan for whatever will help us and others toward salvation. When we landed in Paris we had a short layover and check-in with customs and then it was off again to Lourdes. When we landed safely we had another 40 minutes on a bus before we arrived to Lourdes. Father Romano, still full of zeal and possibly caffeine, helped keep us organized and on schedule when we arrived at Lourdes. After a quick reprieve in our newly assigned rooms Father Romano led us to the actual site of Our Lady’s apparition. A number of my brothers and I were fairly tired from the long trip but that all seemed to change when we arrived at the grotto. After spending some time at the grotto with Our Lady we began to see why we were here. What seemed foreign to us at first began to feel familiar. I think Our Lady made it clear that when we arrived at the grotto we were not just American, Columbian, French, German or all the other nationalities, we are all most importantly the sons and daughters of the same mother and father.

— James Sprenger

May 26, 10:31 a.m.

The motto for all the volunteers in Lourdes this summer is the line of Our Blessed Mother at the wedding feast of Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2: 5). Our goal during this pilgrimage is just that, to listen to how the Lord is calling us to serve Him by helping the least of our brethren. Here in Lourdes, it is very clear that the sick are at the heart of the mission. It’s very touching to see the great dignity that all the volunteers show to the sick as they push wheelchairs in the processions, help people into the baths, and perform many other acts of charity.

Today we had the chance to explore the sanctuary and spend some quality time in prayer as we prepare to begin our work here. We all prayed the stations of the cross. The outdoor stations allow you to walk up a mountain just like Christ on the way to Calvary. I was particularly struck by the meditation we did on the ninth station (Jesus falls the third time), which talks about how Jesus is able to manifest His power through weakness. Here in Lourdes, Christ very clearly makes Himself known through those who are weak.

— Stephen Robbins

May 27, 9:40 a.m.

Today was our first official day of service in Lourdes, and I can honestly say that it was not what I expected at all. We began our day of service at the baths. I was nervous because the pilgrims go into the water naked (with a towel around their waist). One of my jobs was to help them into the water. This was the part that I was nervous about. I was worried about hurting them or making them uncomfortable. However, I learned a beautiful lesson of humility and service.

The pilgrims that approached the baths were willing to strip down naked in front of strangers in a foreign land in order to feel the miraculous love and graces God can offer. This trust shows how important the grace of God is in their lives and makes me question how much I appreciate and trust in God’s grace.

The lesson of service was seen when the malades (the sick) came in for the baths. The idea of helping the sick or disabled man or woman helps me appreciate what the priesthood is all about. The priesthood is all about service! It is not about the title. It’s not about the fame. It’s not about being loved by the community. It’s about loving the community through acts of charity. It is about bringing Christ to the people and the people to Christ.

— Thomas Piro

May 27, 6:44 p.m.

Since my arrival at the holy shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes I am already having an extraordinary spiritual experience which I believe is a gift from our Exalted Queen, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she herself places in my heart the necessity to meditate on the role of silence. I am meditating on understanding that silence is the basis of an intense prayer life with the Heavenly Father.

Having the gallantry to keep silent and to understand His message proposes a battle to free our lives from superficiality, mere appearances or for a search for the easy life. How often we become constant talkers, who want to talk about everything and who pretend to know everything. This constant chatter fights against the ability to assimilate to a life of humility, nobility, charity, poverty and obedience. There is a silence at the great Shrine of Lourdes. Even today, when people talk at the grotto where Our Lady appeared, there is a call to silence. The Blessed Virgin Mary, full of grace, is not a chatterer. Every one of her words to Saint Bernadette had meaning. Our Lady gives us a faithful example of silence that leads to an interior life; she offers an example of one that is full of grace, always ready to fulfill the will of the Father, by denying herself and giving herself to others. This holy shrine allows us to connect with the Mother of God in order to pray to the Father, through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord and His Mother, the Blessed Virgin, show us that even in moments of despair, our life must be turned toward the loving gaze of God. In quiet adoration no one can take us away from the will of the Father. An organized prayer life grows in silence as the Father allows us to know Him and to better know ourselves. Saint John Paul II speaks of silence in the following way: “The silence manifested by adoration, manifests the humble acceptance of the limits of the creature, facing the infinite transcendence of a God of love.” We often do not understand the Gift of the Holy Spirit called the Fear of the Lord. It has nothing to do with being afraid of God, but rather Fear of the Lord calls us to tremble before the Holiness of God. The opposite of Fear of the Lord would be an over familiarity with the mysteries of God which leads to mediocrity. Over familiarity does not help to attain intimacy with Him, but on the contrary it destroys it. I find that there is a great mystery surrounding this story of Our Lady, Saint Bernadette and Lourdes. One can feel the grace in the air, in the people and in the prayer. Lourdes and the healings that take place teach us that the will of God is not always intelligible; it is not always fraternal, not simple nor easily explained on human terms. Some are not healed and so we must remember to not reduce the sacred mystery of Christ to pure good feelings, wanting to make a god of our tastes or wants, putting our own limitations on Him, or in avoiding sacred silence.

Only in the solitude of silence, always guided by the Holy Spirit, will we be brought, even with our limitations, to an intimate encounter with the Creator, an encounter that gives us the only and true freedom that the Almighty offers. This freedom is so different from the world’s idea of freedom, for true freedom leads to a full union with the Most Holy Trinity.

— César Steven Pirateque Serrano

A time of prayer and service to others

Top photo: Diocesan seminarians at Lourdes, France. Below: Seminarians prepare to help the malades, or sick, who come to Lourdes seeking healing.

May 28, 2:42 p.m.

Today was a day of formation for the first year pilgrims. We gathered together with other English speaking pilgrims and learned the mission of Lourdes and the background of how Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette over 150 years ago. It was an amazing experience to be able to hear about how the volunteers at Lourdes put together their mission of making those who are sick the top priority. The sick, or as they call them here in France, the malades, are always our first priority in any type of ceremony here at the sanctuary.

Next, we walked about 20 minutes uptown to the train station to learn how to take care of the malades that come to Lourdes via the trains. There are many details that go into making sure that they are comfortable during their transportation and it is the responsibility of us, the volunteers, to make sure that whatever is needed is done the best we can.

In the afternoon, we volunteered at the Eucharistic procession that happens every day throughout the sanctuary. While usually held outside, today was a rainy day, so we all crowded into the underground basilica and watched as the procession made its way across the grounds of the sanctuary. Once underground, a number of us directed wheelchairs and chariots for the malades toward the altar.

— Logan Nilsen

May 30, 8:09 a.m.

In Lourdes, it is not uncommon for pilgrims to hear a very distracting, “Shhhhh!” This can usually be heard after a bunch of announcements and can be jolting if you’re not paying attention to the schedule of Rosary and Eucharistic processions.

I was distracted when I heard it. I had a passing thought that it seemed harsh. After a day, I found it refreshing.

How often are we so distracted by noises and sights we lose focus on what we truly love in life? Do we spend hours or minutes on social media rather than listening to a friend or family member’s day? Do we spend our time watching television instead of eating a family meal together?

I have noticed recently that every time I get together with seminarians or priests, the same people do most of talking and expressing of emotions. Unfortunately, I fall into this trap all the time. I walk away annoyed at myself for being so expressive or annoyed at another for hogging the community time.

I have been blessed with the understanding of the importance of silence on this trip and have a renewed appreciation of those whose voices go unheard typically.

— Christopher Myers

May 30, 8:44 p.m.

Yesterday, Father Adam delivered a homily with “Going the extra mile” as its theme. Since being in Lourdes, that is really what our service has been about, going the extra mile, not in huge drastic ways, but simply through small acts of kindness. As I reflect on my days in Lourdes, thus far, I have noticed that the only time my being is truly satisfied is by receiving the Precious Body and Blood of Christ, given to us in the Eucharist, and by giving of myself to the least of my brethren.

We have been serving, first, the malades, and then all those who come this holy place seeking some type of healing in their own lives. This task, however, does not come without its exhaustion. Yesterday, we began our service in the baths at 8 a.m., followed by a quick lunch. Immediately following lunch we headed to our formation meeting, which was followed by serving in the Eucharist procession. After the Eucharist procession we were able to come together to pray Evening Prayer and celebrate Mass, which was followed by dinner. After dinner we headed off to serve in the rosary procession, which ended around 10 p.m.

Throughout yesterday, when I was exhausted, I kept thinking about a Scripture verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” I felt that I was truly relying on Jesus throughout the entire day, yesterday. Even though I was completely exhausted, in moments where I needed to help a malade, I felt that I received this energy, a liveliness, which I did not have prior to serving him or her. I truly felt that Christ was giving me the strength I needed in order to go that extra mile, so that those to whom I served could experience Jesus Christ through me.

The lesson is this: that it is in our weakness, our exhaustion, that he is strong, and when we rely on him in those lowliness of times, God will give us the grace to do more than anything we could ever do on our own. Or, better yet, God will give us the grace to go that extra mile for our brothers and sisters, so that our very beings may be filled with that sweet honey, which is everlasting.

— Ryan Meehan

June 1, 7:42 a.m.

Serving, working alongside, and praying with each other, our priests, and people from throughout the world in this holy place has been a beautiful gift. That gift has included edifying challenges too.

Here’s one story. The other day I worked the baths on a team of six men, including one of my brother seminarians. We found out that two of the men would be making a lifetime commitment this week to annually serve at Lourdes. I connected with one of the men. Our group actually attended the Mass during which he and the others made their commitment the following day. I was happy to get to pray for him and congratulate him after at the reception. Our conversation ended a little abruptly as sometimes happens at such events and we were not able to say goodbye.

The following night, I found myself at a low point. As soon as my work was done at one of the processions, I went to the miraculous spring to drink some water and then to the grotto to pray. As I was praying my “psalm of lament” and some other petitions in the darkening twilight with hundreds of others, a figure appeared in the corner of my eye. It was my friend who I had not gotten to say bye to the night before. He greeted me and then prayed silently alongside. After several minutes, he turned and left me with heartfelt and encouraging words. My prayer turned to praise.

To me, Lourdes seems like a place where Mary wants her children to know they are loved. It’s felt like that especially in the baths as we pray to her statue after each person comes up from the water.

In Scripture, Jesus says “if anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.” Lourdes is a concrete expression of His and his Mother’s love and goodness.

— John March