The idea of this joint parishes pilgrimage came out of a conversation at Celebrate Bristol a couple years ago. At that time, our parishes were ‘twinned’ as part of the future Diocese plan, should one of our priests no longer be around. We had already held some joint fundraising events for our joint parish project supporting Borderlands Bristol and MSF and were thinking of other ways that our parishes could get to know each other better. At that time, St Anthony’s had just done a couple of pilgrimage days to Downside Abbey and Prinknash Abbey and I jokingly said “I’ve always wanted to go to Lourdes…!”. With that thought in mind, a few others said it would be a good idea! I started looking into it and after someone said that I couldn’t possibly do it on my own and had to use a tour company, I was more determined than ever to arrange it and also do it on an affordable budget (final cost was £397.12 per head all in with full board accommodation)

I booked the coach transfers both ends, we flew with Ryanair from Stansted to Lourdes and I booked the Hotel Riossy. Whilst in Lourdes, as we didn’t have a Priest travelling with us, we joined other English speaking groups. We joined Liverpool Diocese for Mass in the underground Basilica, Brentwood Diocese for the Candlelight Procession, Westminster Diocese for Mass in the Grotto and Westminster Diocese again for Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the underground Basilica.

Here’s a few words from those who went…..

“ The highlight for  me is difficult to pinpoint as it was all so lovely, but I think my highlight was mass at the Grotto with Westminster diocese. I would definitely recommend going in a small group of about thirty people as we did because the love support and friendship we had together was wonderful. Thanks again for all your help”.

“The Grotto mass, and particularly the homily delivered by Cardinal Vincent Nichols struck me as well articulated and pertinent in the world we find ourselves in today. Although a very busy pilgrimage destination, basilica and surrounds, it always came over as peaceful.  Such tranquility as we found there allowed the perfect place for prayer and inward reflection. Then on Friday the absolute opposite with the Tour de France hype and carnival atmosphere.  Overall I came as a stranger, but departed having made many new friends”.

“As a ‘first-timer’ visiting Lourdes I was quite sceptical; I was expecting it to be overcrowded, noisy and full of shops selling neon Madonna’s.  I felt my faith was faltering and this visit was almost a ‘last chance corrall’ to question why and try and connect again.

The reality was so far from my original set of ideas, and the first thing I noticed was the dignity, respect and love shown to those ill or disabled.  At Lourdes they are the visible, not the invisible (as they are probably treated everywhere else).  The peacefulness which imbibes Lourdes is certainly down to the common practice of prayer, and as everyone is there with the same intention it made for such a calm, respectful and joyful atmosphere.  Everyone seemed so happy to be there, to help each other, and to pray for good that it created a cloud of spirituality which surrounded us.  But they do have some curious souvenir items in the shops, and I did succumb… my colleagues have been treated to mini glow-in-the dark Madonna’s.

I visited the Baths, (again being quite a sceptic), and initially was more concerned about the cold water than anything else.  I was in the same cubicle as a very ill elderly lady and 5 other female pilgrims.  The atmosphere in this cubicle as we awaited our bath became extraordinary, and after a prayer of intention, I was dipped.  Yes, it was colder than any water I have ever felt, but there was something else undefinable that happened.  I do not know how to explain it but it was like a huge release, and I sobbed for 5 minutes afterwards in a corner.  Something touched me hugely – I don’t know if it was Mary, Bernadette or the Holy Spirit but it really was mind altering and not a physical reaction to chilly water.

Since I have returned I think about Lourdes daily.  Trying to explain why it is such an amazing place to people is very hard, but it was inspirational and I am already planning my next pilgrimage for 2019.  Lourdes made me re-evaluate my faith and connect to it again”.

“I have been to Lourdes before…twice with my family. This was the first time I’d been with a parish group. We got the bus at St Patrick’s Church and Fr John waved us off! It was an amazing trip. This time I had the opportunity to go to new places but also return to familiar activities within the Sanctuary. The weather was beautiful all through the trip, so hot and sunny (same as at home!!!) We were together as a group for most of the time, but I did the Low Stations of the Cross within a smaller group. The stations were so expressive, carved from marble and different stations were donated by different pilgrimage groups throughout the world. I thought of all the people who had travelled to this place before me with their prayers. We joined English speaking groups for masses and devotions. The candlelight procession was beautiful, and afterwards a small group of us went across the bridge over the river to say the rosary for our parishes back home. We were opposite the Grotto in the stillness and darkness and our candle remained lit to show us the way. The water of the River Gave lapped quietly by. Groups were praying the Rosary in many languages. We attended Mass in the Underground Basilica with the Liverpool group. This was a new experience for me. The banners, the pilgrims, the helpers, the priests all entering in procession to music was very powerful. A highlight was attending Mass in the Grotto with the Westminster Diocese. Cardinal Nicholls was there. We joined the same group for the Blessed Sacrament procession earlier in the week, back in the Underground Basilica. It was meaningful because it was in English and I could understand and follow it more. We had lots of fun together in the hotel, every meal we would all swap places and talk to different people. We had a trip to the top of the local mountain: Pic du Jer. We got up the mountain on a funicular railway over 100 years old and the mountain was 1000m high. We walked to the top of mountain where we saw  more of the Pyrenees, the border of Spain and looked down to the valley of Lourdes beneath. We saw wild flowers, caves to rest and had cake and a drink at the café. There is a huge cross at the top of the mountain which is lit at night and can be seen from the Sanctuary. We walked along the town and learned about the life of St Bernadette, the family home, the life of the mill and the hardships she had. She was poor, she was sick, she wasn’t able to go to school very often and when she was gathering sticks for the fire Our Lady appeared to her. She was younger then me when this happened. It must have been so big an experience. I truly believe that this has helped me grow as a person and with my faith. I think that being in a group really intensified the feeling of spiritual connection with God, because there were more of us to hear, listen to and spread the word of God”. (aged 14)

“The best thing for me was doing the High Stations. Our main group had split in half with half of us going up the steep hill to the High Stations and those who couldn’t manage the climb, did the Low Stations down in the Sanctuary area near the river. The statues for the High Stations are bronze and life size with really amazing expressions. It made me feel I was really there watching Jesus carry the cross and I could see the pain in his eyes. We stopped by each station to say prayers, led by Helen, and then had some quiet time to think. We took it fairly slowly because it was very hot and very step but in the trees between the stations, there was some shade where we could stand, look at the statues and have some peaceful time to think.  My other favourite thing, apart from the ice-cream sundaes in Le Royal café(!) was visiting the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception which is also called the ‘Upper Basilica’. Inside, there are lots of side altars with beautiful stained glass windows showing the story of Lourdes and the Apparitions. There are also lots of pilgrimage banners from all over the world. Before we went to Lourdes I wasn’t really sure what to expect but being in a group of 27 people made it feel like a family trip which was really nice. Everyone looked out for each other and even though there was a huge difference in ages, we all got along. This trip made me feel closer to my faith and I would definitely like to visit Lourdes again”. (age 14)