Many people will be familiar with the annual Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes in late August. There is however, another local annual Lourdes Pilgrimage, which takes place each Easter, and is run by HCPT (The Children’s Pilgrimage Trust). This pilgrimage, whilst similar to the Diocesan Pilgrimage, is centred on young people, particularly those with some form of disability, disadvantage or hardship in life. Volunteer helpers, many of whom are young people themselves, care for those youngsters who journey to Lourdes and this is one of the strengths and hallmarks of HCPT: young people helping young people.
This Easter, three groups from our Diocese joined the annual HCPT pilgrimage for a week of friendship, sharing, prayer and celebration. Group 176 from Bristol, led by Fr Tom Finnegan, returned from its pilgrimage to Lourdes last weekend. After 2 years absence because of the pandemic, children and helpers from the parishes of St Bonaventure’s, St Teresa’s, St Bernadette’s and Christ the King, were blessed to be back in Lourdes in the company of Our Blessed Mother and St Bernadette. Among the group were people of varying ages and abilities and from different backgrounds yet they came together in Lourdes to walk in procession, to wash in the healing waters, and to pray at the Grotto. They lit candles for the intentions of those who had asked to be prayed for and they remembered former group members, supporters, families at home and the people of Ukraine. At the Trust Mass, they joined all the HCPT groups to celebrate the Eucharist, reflect on the joy of Easter and to give praise God.
All the liturgies that Group 176 attended were typical HCPT liturgies – lively music, hymns with actions, child-centred sermons and participatory bidding prayers. A range of colourful banners led processions, representing many countries and displaying symbolic images such as rainbows, sunflowers, butterflies and peace doves. These banners were a reminder of how wide the reach of HCPT is and also a reminder of the Pilgrimage theme – Colour the world with love. The contagious happiness and enthusiasm that are evident at every HCPT gathering were great signs of hope.
At the final Mass, the HCPT groups gathered together once more in their group colours to give thanks to God for the week in Lourdes and to show gratitude to Our Lady for inviting them there. During the pilgrimage, the adult helpers had experienced the joy of serving others and the children had been inspired by the story of Bernadette – a sickly uneducated girl from perhaps the town’s poorest family, who was chosen to be an earthly bridge with the divine.
A pilgrimage to Lourdes always makes a difference. Sometimes pilgrims know it right away, sometimes it only slowly dawns on them. Lourdes – the holy place chosen by Mary – speaks of love, of acceptance of all and of the compassion of Jesus her son for all who suffer or feel abandoned.
Lourdes is a beautiful place to find sanctuary, to help others and to pilgrimage. It can be said of Lourdes that there is a ‘before and after’ aspect to each person’s encounter with this special place. Whether going with family on holiday, as a volunteer with a Diocesan or HCPT group or indeed as a pilgrim on your own, the experience of Lourdes will gently leave its mark in some way on all who travel there.