Emily Dawson shares her thoughts on the Society of Mary Youth Pilgrimage
This summer I was very fortunate to receive the opportunity to visit Lourdes with a wonderful group of pilgrims as part of the Society of Mary Youth Pilgrimage. It provided a rollercoaster of events and emotions, but had a lot more ups (the hills were vast!) than it did downs. Although it is hard to express in words what I had the chance to witness, I hope to share here some of my greatest memories, which will stay with me forever.
When I found out in April there was a Lourdes pilgrimage being organized, I was totally enthused and couldn’t wait for an experience to help me deepen my faith and relationship with Jesus, despite having a horrid fear of flying. The young pilgrims from my parish also had a “pizza-and-movie night” with the young pilgrims from St Matthew’s, Carver Street, in Sheffield. This allowed us all to mingle and get to know each other before going on pilgrimage together. The friendships formed only added to the experience.
We arrived at church to meet the coach (not so bright, but very early) at 5am to go to Stansted. Although this was testing, my enthusiasm was still as strong just as it was back in April. When finding a seat on the plane, it was difficult to find someone from my own parish, so I ended up next to someone I didn’t know. This was when I first noticed a change in myself; my neighbour soon revealed to me that he struggled with anxiety and was afraid of flying as well. For both our sakes and his own comfort, I put my own fear and nerves aside to help him feel more relaxed for the duration of the flight. By the time it came to landing, he was clearly more at ease and comfortable. This was just the beginning of an amazing pilgrimage and already Jesus’ power was amongst us all.
When we arrived in Lourdes we were taken to the youth village with around 40 other young pilgrims from all over the country. Once we had sorted out our rooms and put our luggage down, we were rushed to mass in a beautiful chapel. This was a great occasion for our arrival, and was followed by walking through the Door of Mercy. We traced the image of the large cross upon ourselves, which was very moving and a reminder for me for the reason why I had decided to visit Lourdes – as by now my enthusiasm had grown slightly tired, along with my body and senses. This helped me rekindle the passion I had for my Christian faith, and helped it deepen in ways I cannot begin to describe.
On the second day we visited St-Bertrand-de-Comminges. The church was stunning and I was captivated by its beauty. The service was touching, and the music sung was magnificent. This was then followed by a picnic where we had opportunities to mix with the other young pilgrims and create friendships. We then visited a church dedicated to St Just, who was a martyr. His tomb was in the church, and it was smooth in certain places because of people tracing their hands over the stone. This was very enriching; it was also interesting to learn about his life and death.
On the third day, we took a trip to Lourdes and saw the basilica. It is a sight which I cannot put into words, and anyone who is able to go Lourdes must take the chance to climb up to see the blazing crown in its glory that sits atop the lower basilica. We attended an international mass, where thousands of Christians from all over the world came together for worship. This was very special as the word of Lord was proclaimed in so many different languages, yet we were all worshipping the one holy God whom we live for. We also climbed the rampe du fort, this was exhausting, but well worth it as from the top it overlooked the whole town. The view was breathtaking.
I found this day the most moving, as we were blessed to attend the candlelight procession that evening. When the candlelight procession began it was daylight, but as the night drew in and the sun set the presence of God washed over us all as we prayed the Rosary in many different languages. Although the candles were slightly intimidating with their flickering flame wafting a few inches behind the person in front, I think it was the most powerful part of the pilgrimage, doing so many years later exactly what Our Lady had told St Bernadette she wanted pilgrims to do. We also wore Society of Mary banners around us in our own designs: we had a range of veils, belts, and headbands, but I went for “rain-hat chic”. Some of our number were given the privilege of carrying torches during the procession, and they stood round the image of Our Lady as we assembled in front of the lower basilica. Every part of it deepened my faith, and at the end seeing the crowned Virgin all lit up in the darkness was incredible.
During our time in Lourdes we also visited St Bernadette’s home, which was lovely as it conveyed her normality – yet Mary appeared to her, which shows the grace that flows through Our Lady. We also walked through the grotto where Our Lady appeared, and this, like the tomb of St Just, had become smooth where pilgrims had touched the stones. This was a life-changing experience, and I will be forever grateful for it. A visit to the caves of Bétharram was a great end to the pilgrimage, and at one point on the boat ride through the caves we were plunged into unexpected darkness. A friend of mine from south-west London and I broke into laughter – the downside to both of us having infectious laughs meant that the whole boat joined in!
I have been truly blessed to visit Lourdes. It was an enriching experience in a glorious environment, and I’m so thankful to everyone who made it possible. I’ve been able to take away more than I could have ever hoped for, and I’ve learnt more than I could have ever imagined. I’ve met some amazing people who, although I met them as strangers, became like a family to me for the week. I had a fantastic time, and lots of fun – there wasn’t a dull moment, and I can genuinely say it was one of the greatest and exciting weeks of my life. Thanks be to God for giving me these opportunities to deepen my faith – it was wonderful to share this memory with so many people in Lourdes, and I hope I have been able to convey the greatness here, too.
Emily Dawson worships at St John the Baptist, Edlington, in South Yorkshire.