We are back from our pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, and excited to share with you our experience of this extraordinary journey.
We were honored to be invited by the Order of Malta American Association to serve as co-chairs of the 2017 Pilgrimage to Lourdes. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at the Grotto in Lourdes, revealing the healing waters. The theme this year was, ''Our Mother Mary, Full of Grace.''
Having been on the pilgrimage many times, we knew it would again be filled with many sacred moments. However, our view from the vantage of co-chairs was an entirely new experience as we had a front-row seat to the many stories of courage, selflessness and faith that emerged throughout the week.
The American Association's pilgrimage to Lourdes is an annual event. The purpose of the pilgrimage, which this year took place from May 3 through 9, is to give people who are very ill, known as Malades, the opportunity to experience the healing waters and a range of other spiritual activities that take place during the week. The Malades each bring a caregiver, and both Malades and caregivers travel as our guests.
More than 400 people made the pilgrimage this year, including more than 60 pilgrims from the Boston Area. "We were delighted that so many of our local Knights, Dames and Auxiliary were able to go to Lourdes this year," said Damien DeVasto, chair of the Boston Area Order of Malta since 2013. "The Lourdes Pilgrimage is a wonderful way for our members to live our mission. We are committed to nurturing the faith as well as to providing assistance to the poor and suffering."
Each Malade and Caregiver is assigned to a team, which includes members of the Order, medical professionals, a member of the clergy and various volunteers. Throughout the week, the team members serve the Malades and Caregivers by bringing them to the daily liturgies, the baths, the Marian candlelight procession, the eucharistic procession and adoration and other spiritual events.
We cannot stress enough the importance of those who came on the pilgrimage to serve. The pilgrimage is not a glamorous European vacation. These selfless individuals dropped everything in their personal lives to work, to wear a simple uniform, stay in a basic hotel and spend their time seeing to the needs of our Malades and Caregivers. And yet, to a person they would tell you they get more out of the experience than they give.
"You can't really explain a Lourdes pilgrimage unless you've gone to one," said Boston-area resident Joe Milano. Joe has been a member of the order for 30 years. He made the pilgrimage in the 1990s and again with his wife, Jill, three years ago. Even though in 2014 Joe had just undergone seven months of chemotherapy to treat his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he participated as a Member of the Order, not as Malade. Joe is doing well, and this year he and Jill, who is preparing to become a Dame, went again. "There was always a Mass, an inspiring Homily or message from the clergy," Joe said. "Msgr. Moroney's talk hit it out of the park. He is a gifted speaker."
Joe is referring to Boston's own Msgr. James Moroney, rector at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. Msgr. Moroney was one of many members of the clergy -- bishops, priests and deacons -- who attended the pilgrimage, and we are deeply grateful for the role they played in making the 2017 pilgrimage such a success. They were completely involved, not just through programming, but through the individual pastoral support and spiritual guidance they provided every step of the way.
As Joe suggested, Msgr. Moroney gave us one of the most inspirational talks of the week. His subject was Mother Mary and how, at the Annunciation, Mary bowed to God's will. And while his message encouraging us to make room for God inspired us, Msgr. Moroney was inspired by others. "I was overwhelmed by the faith of the sick and the dedication of the scores of pilgrims caring for them," Msgr. Moroney said. "The sacrifices of the Knights and Dames of Malta combined with the hope so tangible in the Malades was a transformative experience." The monsignor noted that people think of Lourdes as bringing about a healing of the body, but other forms of healing take place as well. "Few Malades or Caregivers leave the waters of Lourdes without a miracle of faith, of acceptance of the crosses God has given to each one of them, and of renewed hope that the will of God leads to perfect joy," he said.
A moving example of Msgr. Moroney's point is the story of Gayle White and her 16-year-old son, Johnny. Johnny is nonverbal with moderate-to-severe autism. Gayle went to Lourdes as Johnny's caregiver. The highlight for her, and for other pilgrims who witnessed it, was when Johnny received the sacrament of confirmation. It took place at the morning Mass on the final day of the pilgrimage and was administered by Bishop Paul Bootkoski. Gayle said that normally Johnny would resist dressing in a suit as well as having the bishop anoint his head with oil. "He put on those clothes as if he'd been wearing a suit and tie all his life," she said. "He was beaming when Bishop Bootkoski touched his head. I think he knew what was happening. He is so intuitive and open to God." Gayle lost a son, Joe, four years ago. She said Johnny dressed in the suit looked so much like Joe. "My heart was broken and pleased all at the same time. The confirmation was a tangible healing moment for me and a powerful blessing for Johnny."
The 2017 Pilgrimage to Lourdes will always remain in our hearts. For almost a year we worked with an incredible team consisting of the American Association staff and volunteers; the Malade Selection Committee; the Medical Committee; members of the clergy; and the many Knights, Dames and Auxiliary who gave their time, love and compassion to make it possible for our Malades and caregivers to experience Lourdes. We have been truly blessed by this journey, renewed in faith and refreshed in our love of God.
CRAIG AND NANCY GIBSON ARE MEMBERS OF THE BOSTON AREA ORDER OF MALTA AND CO-CHAIRED THE NATIONAL ORDER'S PILGRIMAGE TO LOURDES.