I was one of those lucky pilgrims who took part in the Westminster Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes this year. It was a wonderful week of spiritual renewal in the company of a very friendly group of people. This morning two days after returning, so many good memories flood my mind. I thought of that little nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees and wished I was back at the Grotto where, in February 1858, Our Lady, appeared to Bernadette. To me this is the nearest I will get to heaven on earth. There is such a sense of peace and happiness there, especially at night where so much silent prayer, meditation and reflection is taking place. But it was a very busy week for us pilgrims. I went with Pimlico Parish lead by Fr Pat Browne. We travelled overland, first by Eurostar, then across Paris by coach and finally by train to Lourdes, arriving late Sunday night at our hotel The Myotosis (forget me not) just a short walk from the shrine. On Monday morning after breakfast we walked up the hill amid glorious scenery to the Cathedral of The Trees, where we had Mass in the open air. This was the first gathering of the 2003 Westminster Diocesan Pilgrimage. The sun shone. There was Cardinal Cormac in his red hat, the bishops in their purple ones and all the clergy in their vestments. To the right of the altar were the choir and musicians. The congregation sat in a natural amphitheatre among the trees on seats cut from the stones. The sick were at the front in their wheelchairs. Cardinal Cormac welcomed us, encouraged us to pray, to care for each other and the sick pilgrims. He also asked us to pray for the success of our diocesan renewal programme 'At Your Word Lord', asking that, Our Lady of Lourdes would help us to be generous and faithful witnesses to her Son, Jesus Christ in the world we live in. After Mass we trouped down the hill for lunch, happy to be back in Lourdes getting to know each other and settling in for the week . The hotel became our home for the next six days and the foyer was our meeting place. On Thursday evening we had a great singsong in the basement bar lead by Fr Pat with the musicians and singers. When Our Lady appeared to Bernadette she asked people to come in procession and so we did. It was a spectacular sight. There were thousands of us, each on carrying a lighted candle, singing and praying the Rosary. Each Diocese has its own banner, and special colours, badges and scarves. We saw banners from Nottingham, Lancaster, Aberdeen, Galway, Spain, France, Italy and other places. Westminster's colour is red - very easily seen and helped us stay together. Among the walkers were a group of miners wearing helmets and their story was an interesting one. Apparently they come to Lourdes each year to give thanks to Our Lady who rescued them from a mining accident. One miner had a vision of Our Lady who led them to safety through a tunnel. The Torchlight procession ended in front of the Rosary Basilica. We also went on the Blessed Sacrament procession which ended with an international Mass in the underground Basilica of St. Pius X. On Tuesday we attended a Mass on the other side of the river opposite the Grotto. During the Mass it was mentioned that a couple was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The crowd applauded as they came up to the altar. Then their son was asked to join them and he was none other than Fr Power from Westminster Diocese. On the Wednesday morning we went to Sant Savin - an 11th Century church up in the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking and we took some photos and had a look in the shops, before going into the church for the stations of the cross for the sick. Fr Power lead the stations and we had some beautiful music. That afternoon we went to the baths. The queues were long but it was a refreshing experience. There were many other little trips throughout the week. One afternoon we went to the lake, and another day we took a funicular railway to see a stunning panoramic view of the mountains. Suddenly a huge eagle came soaring over us. It must have had a wingspan of at least six feet. Then two smaller eagles swooped by. They were so close we could see their feathers. I had never seen such a sight in my life before and the scene remained in my mind for several hours. On another afternoon we walked around Lourdes and visited the Boly Mill where Bernadette was born, and 'The Cachot' the old jail where she and her family lived when they were at their poorest. During a spat of thunder and lightening, we attended a Mass for the sick at the hospital. The Redcaps, mostly very young, and the medics were an example of the caring dedication seen at Lourdes. Children were part of the services too. At the penitential service they danced and sang. I cannot pick out my favourite moment of the trip. There were times when we prayed together in our thousands, times when we prayed together in smaller groups, and times when we offered our private prayers. In this holy place we could do all three. We have all returned home now, refreshed in spirit, mind and body.
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