In the early hours of this Friday morning, long before dawn a group of natives from the Waterside and I will travel to Lourdes; this will be the first time in four years I will have visited the Marian Pilgrimage site. We will be accompanied by the Trench Road Folk Group who celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, and several other parishioners.
I think this will be one of the few occasions when there will be more pilgrims younger than me than older, although I’m still one of the few outside of the folk group who is under forty years of age.
One of the first times I ventured onto a plane was to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Derry Diocesan Pilgrimage back in the Jubilee Year of 2000. I think the organisers deliberately fly people out during the middle of the night because everyone is still half asleep and the last thing you’re worrying about is the flight. Instead you want find you seat quickly so you can close your eyes again before take-off. The best flights are always the quickest, when you wake up and find the plane begins its descent for final approach. Hopefully on the plane the folk group will save all their singing for Lourdes otherwise I’ll have to resort to the ipod. After all a person needs their sleep otherwise I’ll be in the worse of form for the rest of the week.
I would be like a bear with a sore head after hearing how Derry City, Liverpool and the Derry Gaelic team had all been beaten on the same weekend. I suppose by this stage you would think I would be used to such occurrences, saying they happen regularly enough these last few years.
One of the difficult aspects of pilgrimages concerns the early mornings and dare I say the late nights. As a result your body clock doesn’t know what has hit it and by the time you return to Derry you’re definitely in need of a cure or a new body. In fact by the time you return from France more people would be eligible for DLA than on the way out to Lourdes.
I have always enjoyed Lourdes and every year you go on pilgrimage with a different group the experience has its own unique character. The reason we travel to Lourdes is simple, we have been invited. Mary, the Mother of God has asked us to gather at the Grotto to learn from her school of prayer which she introduced to St Bernadette some 154 years ago. The theme for this year’s pilgrimage is ‘With Bernadette praying the rosary’.
Over a century and a half ago the Blessed Virgin became the true spiritual teacher of Bernadette. As is explained on the website for Lourdes, ‘By her presence, her words and gestures, Mary will lead Bernadette little by little into the mystery of her Son, the Redeemer of the world’. This is true of all who travel on pilgrimage; we try to follow in Bernadette’s footsteps as Mary opens our hearts and our minds to the healing presence of her Son. Sometimes we have to travel to a far off place to learn anew how to recognise God’s presence in our daily struggles. In welcoming Mary, Bernadette welcomes Christ, as we hear the echo of the words from Saint Luke’s gospel, ‘why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord.’ In welcoming Bernadette, Mary too welcomes Christ as we recall the words from Saint Mathew, ‘in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did it to me.’ Together as a community we become ministers of Christ’s healing and saving presence.
In prayer we open our lives to the one who comes to comfort and guide all men and women through their struggles and encounters with pain, sickness and death. Like the stretcher bearers who carried the paralytic to the feet of Jesus we’re asked to carry one another into the presence of God so we are close enough to touch the hem of his garments and experience true healing. Jesus not only gave the woman suffering with the haemorrhage physical healing, he gave her back her life because she was no longer ritually unclean and a social and religious outcast.
I’m sure Jairus was frantic with panic when Jesus stopped to question this woman because his only concern was his daughter. In prayer we have to be conscious of the needs of others and not only our own needs. God is the Father of all his children and no matter our station in life he loves all people equally.
God has time for all his sons and daughters and no matter how long we feel we have to wait, or how slow God is to answer, we need to be patient and learn to trust. God does not abandon his people; he does not even abandon us to death. From the day of our baptism we have a pledge of everlasting life, we need to embrace these promises and remain close to the One who heals and offers the gift of eternal life.