Why do we do it? I find myself asking this after my twentieth year spending Easter Week in Lourdes as a helper with HCPT. Mind you, young first-timers were equally exhausted, nodding off on the flight home.
Well for me, its to do with a faith community experience, highlighting the links between love of God and love of neighbour, particularly children who are disabled and disadvantaged. Truly, in giving we have received. One of our hotel bedrooms was a hive of activity last Tuesday as our group, from Chiswick in West London, decorated personalised figures representing each one of us. Mine had a sparkly guitar! These were presented that afternoon at a regional Mass for 12 groups, largely from Westminster Diocese, and several of our children brought them forward. The Mass was a typical HCPT liturgy - lively music and hymns with actions, participatory bidding prayers, a very short sermon and one of the twelve priests signing for deaf children. Adults and children alike left St Joseph's Church in the domain with broad smiles. Praising God continued with games on the prairie, on the opposite side of the river to the Grotto. Our young helpers led ball and parachute games and even the blades of grass danced in the sunshine.
The next day we participated in our own group Mass in St Gabriel's Chapel over the main basilica, surrounded by 150 years-worth of plaques thanking Our Lady for blessings received in Lourdes. We remembered former group members, benefactors and our families at home who form a web of loving connections around our group. Then I attended the Irish Region Mass where the welcome was given by a young girl from a group in yellow sweatshirts- who reminded us that "this week is about what we can do, not what we can't do". Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry told us "to be proud of the Sign of the Cross, and the reminder that God believes in people, the Son forgives our sins, and the Holy Spirit makes our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit". I liked the sweat shirts of an orange group emblazoned with - SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE. HCPT people don't get too stuffy about faith. When you're spending a week with children coping with serious illnesses, facing short lives or experiencing discrimination because of special educational needs then it is a week to celebrate each day with joy and laughter. The bishop and more than 50 priests present could well cope with balloons with smiley faces being tapped around and helpers with green, white and gold tickle sticks. The Mass in this context is less about rules and more about meaningful spiritual engagement.
Bishop Manuel Cruz, Auxiliary Bishop of Newark and a Cuban-American, accompanied HCPT pilgrims from the US region who led this year's Trust Mass in Lourdes' cavernous Underground Basilica on 5 April. The theme was 'You are special' and preparations for it started two years ago. "This Mass was an inspiring renewal of our faith, speaking loud and clear that Jesus is alive", he said afterwards. All 200 groups - around 5000 people - attended, and thousands watched on the internet. Again, the clergy and people were close, with priests spending much of the Mass with their groups and then distributing the Eucharist to them. At the end of Mass all seven bishops concelebrating mingled with the congregation and met as many children as possible. Bishop Alan Williams of Brentwood said afterwards that, "I always find it wonderful and uplifting, full of the joy of the risen Lord and we see this in eachother". Archbishop Ján Orosch of Trnava in Slovakia, who had limited English, raised his arms and said, "good, good, good". I was intrigued by the range of creative banners displayed at the end, covering 15 countries and displaying such symbolic images as rainbows, sunflowers, and peace doves. What about 'Angels of the North' from Group 41 in the North-East and 'Who cares wins' from an East London group!
Helpers are also drawn back to Lourdes by learning about humility and love from our children and their parents. An autistic boy in our group beautifully wrote out all the group names for our special candle, which we left opposite the Grotto on our final day. And the sleepless nights and struggles to get wheelchairs up hills and to change nappies in cafes that rarely have disabled toilets all remind us of the heroic parents of children with special needs who care for them the other 51 weeks of the year. All my family is involved with HCPT and my husband Gerry and I feel it is an opportunity to thank God for the blessings we have received. Gerry feels his life was transformed when he first went to Lourdes with HCPT as a child in 1964, in Group 1 and with founder Michael Strode as group doctor! He has always been inspired by the young people who get on with making the most of life despite all the hurdles facing them. Two of our sons have been helpers and one, James, is now a group leader.
HCPT is a very youthful pilgrimage with more than 50 percent of helpers under 30 years of age. I believe young people are the best helpers, with similar interests in the youth cultural scene and the energy to play, dance and entertain children. The week gives me hope, for HCPT is a Church group offering faith formation and engagement with young people. The pilgrimage holiday shows that worship can be fun and the Church has a positive role to play in today's world. Young people learn the Church's teaching - underlined by Pope Francis - that it is important who you are and not just what you do. The influence of the L'Arche community was prominent when our group visited the City of the Poor on a hill above Lourdes. Founder Jean Vanier once said: "I am struck about how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes". Among the HCPT groups we have had financiers, solicitors, teachers, celebrities and other high flyers, but we are all equal in Lourdes as we walk in the processions, seek the healing waters, and stand side by side at the Grotto.
So, it's a week when we experience the joy of serving others, the compassion that leads us to accept eachother as we are and forgive, and to cherish the love of God for all people and for all creation. "Sing it in the valleys, shout it from the mountaintops, Jesus came to save us and his saving never stops" could be heard on the day out in Gavarnie as groups celebrated Masses amidst the glories of the Pyrenees. A holistic faith gives context to our lives and we learn to be bridge-builders and peacemakers.
The children are inspired when they find out that Bernadette was a sickly uneducated girl from perhaps the town's poorest family, and that this was the child chosen to be an earthly bridge with the divine. Phil Sparke, HCPT's Chief Executive, reflects that, "at a time when our world seems increasingly selfish, it has been heartening and humbling to see the selfless commitment of many thousand members of the international family of HCPT in giving of themselves so generously in our Easter 2018 Pilgrimage".
"Rise and Shine and give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord."
Watch the Trust Mass 2018 here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SLnshFoGLo
Read more about HCPT (Hosanna House and Children's Pilgrimage Trust): www.hcpt.org.uk
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