We have hit the halfway point of our semester in Gaming, and we have just arrived back from our 10-day break. I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Lourdes, France for mission with 12 other Franciscan students.
Lourdes was beautiful and powerful, and I have no words. It’s something I feel as if I’ll never be able to fully or properly describe to anyone.
Lourdes is known for being the place where Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette in 1858. Six million people travel to Lourdes every year, making it the most-visited Marian apparition site in the world. It is a place to which many people come for healing, hoping for a miracle.
Our team of students, along with 30 or so adult volunteers from America, assisted with the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers’ Special Needs Pilgrimage.
The pilgrims stayed in the Lourdes Sanctuary at the Accueil Notre-Dame, which is like a hospital, but without any of the hospital staff. Our team of volunteers provided the nurses, the hospitality, the dining services, the transportation and anything else the pilgrims needed throughout their week in Lourdes.
As volunteers, our days began with the typical French breakfast of French bread, hot chocolate and coffee. Then we got to spend time in the Accueil’s chapel and hear a reflection from an awesome Franciscan priest from New York.
Each day, there were different trips on which we accompanied the pilgrims. We went to the baths, to the evening rosary procession, on a tour of the home where Saint Bernadette grew up, to a museum, to Eucharistic adoration at an underground basilica that looks like Noah’s Arc and to many Masses at the various chapels and basilicas around the sanctuary.
Many of us got to push pilgrims who were in wheelchairs. One of my particular jobs was to pull a to-go cart of snacks and water whenever we went on trips. It was fun to chat with and get to know the pilgrims as I handed out animal crackers and water in Dixie cups.
Oftentimes, as missionaries, we didn’t know what was going to be happening next. We took it all as it came. It is cool to live this way, not knowing what is coming next and being forced to be totally present in each moment.
Once, as I was headed back to the Accueil to help set up for lunch, I was asked to accompany a pilgrim named Elizabeth to the Grotto. It wasn’t what I had planned on, but it ended up being so joyful. We talked about saints who were big on sacrifice and redemptive suffering. It was awesome.
One night, being a missionary consisted in babysitting a three year old. The only thing she wanted to do was be outside on the rooftop and dance. So, we danced on the rooftop for three hours. We also ate bunny crackers.
One of the best days was when it rained hard the entire day, so all of the afternoon activities were cancelled. I got to have confession with one priest followed by spiritual direction with another priest, and then I got to have coffee with some of the pilgrims. It was so good to spend time just being together and chatting.
The graces at Lourdes were so abundant. Grace, of course, is very much a thing that transcends words, but here is one way to think of it. Grace is what gives us the capacity to recognize good and to desire good. And since God is goodness itself, grace consists in being aware of the presence of God.
This it what it was like at Lourdes—it was so easy to see Christ in every person, every moment, every situation.
In the presence of such abundant grace, every little moment was sanctified, and it all felt indescribably peaceful, joyful and good.
We were missionaries at Lourdes, but the pilgrims were missionaries to us, too. They loved us by being present with us, by listening to us, by sharing their stories with us, by being receptive to us and letting us love them. (It is so important to remember that one of the best ways to love is to receive love!)
At Mass on Monday, the Rev. Seraphim, TOR, talked about exchange rates in his homily. He talked about exchanging dollars to euros and euros to zloty. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this until he said, “How many people here feel like they received more on mission than what they gave?” Everyone’s hand went up.
As Saint Pope John Paul II says, we find ourselves by giving of ourselves.
Brian Kissinger, the director of Student Life here in Gaming, is brilliant and every time he talks I feel as if I should be taking notes. On Sunday, he gave us this analogy.
When we are on mission, we have this attitude that the littlest thing we do is a big and instrumental part of God’s divine plan. We’re kicking around a soccer ball with the kids we met on mission? Great, God has a plan to use this for good, so I’ll give it my all. Random lunch with middle school students? This is my moment to evangelize, so I’m really going to give of myself.
But really, we are on mission all the time. We should constantly have this same attitude of being ready to love, serve and give of ourselves. Even when we aren’t driving five hours to give a confirmation retreat (or taking a train, two planes and a shuttle to hang out with pilgrims at Lourdes), we can always choose to dispose ourselves to be used however God sees fit.
I am so thankful to have gotten to go to Lourdes this past week. What a gift.
All the glory to God!