When asked to travel on the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes with the local branch of the Irish Pilgimage Trust initially, I was a little sceptical.
Looking back I suppose I attributed this to a fear of the unknown, and not knowing what my role as a carer would be. I had never really engaged in any form of volunteerism on this scale before and found the entire concept a little daunting.
I told leader Michael Carroll to “Let me think about it”, and walked away. I thought about it for all of 60 seconds. I don’t know why but it was one of the easiest decisions I ever made, something just told me that it would be a worthwhile experience, and I was right.
To be honest, I never had a great desire to travel to Lourdes and would not class myself as an overly religious person. However I do have faith. Reflecting back on what can only be described as an amazing week, I am delighted that I decided to travel with group 165 and take part in what was an unforgettable experience, one that I will always remember.
We arrived at Shannon airport, and it became evident that as helpers we were required to look after every aspect of the journey for our guests. They depended on us. We needed to be there for them.
In Lourdes, where we were group 165, a sense of belonging began to develop among the group members.
Post check-in, we took a walk around Lourdes to take in the atmospheres and head towards the grotto. Walking towards the grotto, the group was talkative and excited. However, as the statue of Our Lady came into sight, an overwhelming calmness came over the whole group. Even the toughest young lads who “weren’t religious” were star struck.
As the days progressed, I began to appreciate the logistics of organising such a large scale trip and admired the hard work and dedication of the organisers. I could see relationships blossoming between the guests and also between the guests and carers. The kids were starting to come out of their shells, some took on the role of big brother or big sister to others who perhaps needed a little extra care.
Another aspect I found enjoyable was the interest that the guests took in the daily Masses and their desire to be a part of them. One of the most enjoyable Masses that the group’s priest, Fr Gerry, gave was on at the beach in St Jean de Luz. Never in my life have I attended Mass in a more beautiful setting. Afterwards we had a picnic. However, the highlight was a resounding rendition of Rise and Shine, complete with dance moves, to the amazement and amusement of passersby.
One of the greatest sights to behold was the trust Mass in the underground basilica. Every year, thousands of pilgrims pack into this special venue to rejoice together. Rejoice was the theme for this year’s pilgrimage and the event was hosted by the West Indies. Rise and Shine rang out over the steel drums and bongos, saxophones and guitars that the West Indian gospel band had.
There is so much to talk and write about in relation to the trip. However, as Michael once told me: “You cannot explain this trip to people, you just have to experience it for yourself”.
On the journey home, I chatted to other “newbie” carers. The feeling among us was mutual. We unanimously agreed that we would be back again next year with group 165.
n Mark McGinn was one of the new carers who travelled with the North Tipperary branch of the Irish Pilgrimage Trust to Lourdes at Easter