The best way to experience Lourdes

A pilgrim holds a candle in front of the statue of Mary at the grotto at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This Easter saw the 60th Anniversary of HCPT (The Hosanna House and Children’s Pilgrimage Trust). It was in the 1950s that Dr Michael Strode (Now Brother Michael Strode) first visited Lourdes with the Archdiocese of Birmingham pilgrimage. During his visit Dr Michael contemplated the possibility of taking disabled and sick children to Lourdes from the school where he worked at the time.

It was in 1954 that he first took a group of disabled children as part of the Birmingham pilgrimage. This was a great success and in 1956 HCPT was founded. Dr Michael Strode’s vision was that the children should stay in hotels as honoured guests rather than in the hospitals as was the practice at the time. The foundation of HCPT was very much a response to Our Lady’s invitation to go on Pilgrimage to Lourdes. Today the aim is to enable children and young adults with disabilities to experience pilgrimage as part of small family sized groups which seek to share joy and nurture each other in God’s love.

I was privileged join the 60th anniversary pilgrimage as the chaplain of a Group from Rugby. This pilgrimage was like nothing else that I have ever experienced before. It was spirit filled, chaotic, shattering, joyful and loaded with emotion. It was a real delight to be part of what was a small family of helpers and sponsored children who grew together as the week unfolded. We celebrated Mass together in various places around Lourdes and also had the opportunity of leading the daily rosary as a group at the Grotto, with members of the group reading simple introductions to each decade of the Rosary.

The whole town was transformed as 1000 children plus helpers converged in their colourful group clothing, bursting into song in the street and in cafes. HCPT are welcomed by the towns people who have developed a great affection for the annual Easter pilgrims. A sign of this esteem was the funding, by local traders, of the fantastic firework display from the fort at the end of the torchlight procession. I thought that the impressive display was never going to end.

For me the most memorable occasion was saying Mass in the mountains at Gavarnie in the Pyrenees, surrounded by the snow-capped summits. As well as such small group celebrations we were able to join in the larger liturgies which were organised by HCPT.

The most impressive liturgy of the week was the Trust Mass where Cardinal Vincent Nichols was the principle celebrant. The underground basilica of St Pius X was full to capacity as groups from around the world gathered to celebrate. It was certainly one of the liveliest liturgies in which I have participated, bordering at times on the chaotic. Yet a real and tangible sense of joy and holiness prevailed.

The greatest part of the week was getting to know the children in my own group and living life by their pace and not my own. This was a real privilege and all of the helpers reflected upon how we developed very quickly a sense community as we ate, prayed, celebrated the sacraments and had fun together.

I would certainly recommend volunteering with HCPT, it is a way of seeing Lourdes like no other.