I told my sons, who are in their 20s, that I was going to the south of France for a week and they replied,"mum you've been in Bristol eight months and you haven't made it the 3 miles to the Harbourside." I told them Blessed Pope John Paul II has gone to Lourdes a year before he died and the answer I got was, well, he had an entourage. I said yes Tom, and so do I!
My ability to walk just a short distance and weakness in all four limbs means I have to be pushed in a wheelchair, so flying and/or train, is out of the question. But we were travelling by JumbuIance. A Jumbulance is a cross between a giant ambulance and a coach. There are seven stretcher beds on one side and reclining seats on the other.
There are two drivers to cover the allocated driving hours, a doctor and a nurse and several able-bodied volunteers. There are curtains around the stretcher beds so personal care or medical needs can be looked after in privacy and with dignity. We leave after Mass at the Cathedral on Thursday afternoon and once on board, with our luggage and wheelchairs stored underneath, we drive to Ashford and straight onto the Eurostar and then on through the night, arriving at about 3 or 4 o'clock on the Friday afternoon. I stay in Accueil Notre Dame as I need personal care. It is inside the Domain and very peaceful. There is a beautiful roof terrace where you can see the mountains and watch the nightly torchlight procession. Personal care and medical needs are covered in the hospital by trained professionals and youth volunteers. They work half the week in the hospital and the other half of their week with the people staying in hotels in the bustling little town of Lourdes.
There is a wonderful atmosphere in the wards and some of the carers are back for the seventh and (one for the 11th!) time and nothing is too much trouble, even if you decide you want to visit the Grotto at 2AM, there are always two people to take you! There are Masses and services every day in some of the most beautiful chapels and the Basilica. There is one evening when we lead the Marion torchlight procession. For those pilgrims that are able the Stations of the Cross on a hill and for us the Stations of the Cross on the Prairie. There is a wonderful children's Mass, which is lively and full of fun with the Glandfield Group. Each parish has a lovely day out, ours is to Bartres, for Mass followed by a wonderful lunch and a little shopping! You are free to join in all of the services or none, as it is everybody's personal pilgrimage, including the people who are looking after us. They have paid for their own travel and accommodation and work tirelessly without pay and yet they come back year after year.
And yes, I am still in my wheelchair, I am still in pain but I came back two years ago and the feeling of 'loss of self', inside me had been replaced, during the Holy Hour with a beautiful golden glow and I knew that the bit of me, that that makes me, well, me, was back. I went last year again and I'm very much looking forward to going in August this year. One of the most wonderful things about Lourdes is that for one week in the year, we i.e. people with disabilities, come first and there is no queueing, we go straight to the front of any queue and people treat us so respectfully and so joyfully. There is even a wheelchair lane on the side of the road instead of a cycle lane! Strangers ask if they can help push your wheelchair up the hill and you say yes, because it is part of their pilgrimage to do something for a stranger. But best of all is that we get to practice our faith without fear of being judged or ridiculed or hiding our faith, as we so often have to do in this PC world today. You come back renewed, refreshed and look forward to meeting old friends and making new ones on your next visit.