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Carmelites welcome pilgrims to Lourdes
09 June 2012

At the end of May a few members of the Carmelite Family travelled to Lourdes, France, for a week of service welcoming some of the six million pilgrims who come every year to the celebrated Marian shrine at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Lourdes has been Europe's largest site of pilgrimage in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary since the Mother of God appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

The cave where Our Lady appeared in 1858, known as the Grotto of Massabielle,
is at the heart of the Lourdes Sanctuary.

As well as the Grotto the Lourdes Sanctuary contains dozens of places of worship,
including no less than three basilicas (churches recognised by the Vatican as having major significance beyond their locale).

The task of welcoming pilgrims and tourists to the Sanctuary is entrusted by the Bishop of Tarbes & Lourdes to an organisation known as the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL). This organisation has some 16,000 members (known as 'Hospitaliers') from dozens of different countries around the world who give a week of their time, at their own expense, to come to Lourdes as pilgrims who welcome other pilgrims, particularly the sick and disabled. This week of service is known as a 'Stage', from the French for work experience.

Every year a small group of Carmelite religious and laity from Britain travels out to Lourdes to work as Hospitaliers in a number of different HNDL services welcoming pilgrims.

This year's Carmelite group consisted of two friars from the York community (Fr. Antony Lester and Br. Gerard Walsh), and three Lay Carmelites (Sade Akisanya from London, Johan Bergström-Allen from York, and Angela Bergström-Allen from Cambridge).

Four of the Carmelites serving in Lourdes as members of the HNDL this year.

Fr. Antony worked throughout the week in the baths at Lourdes. Bathing in water from a spring in the Grotto has been popular with pilgrims ever since the first miraculous healings associated with the water back in the 1850s. Antony worked as part of an international team of volunteers who accompany pilgrims in prayer. The baths building houses a number of pools in which pilgrims can bathe, and Antony was asked to lead the team in the pool which welcomes the most severely disabled pilgrims.

All volunteers working with the HNDL undergo a five-year programme of formation which gives them practical experience of different aspects of welcoming pilgrims, and spiritual formation in the history and meaning of the apparitions and the contemporary 'Message of Lourdes'. Brother Gerard is in his fourth year of this initial formation, and so worked in a variety of services, including praying with pilgrims at the baths, welcoming sick and disabled pilgrims at the railway station, and facilitating the presence of the huge crowds at the major processions and ceremonies of the Sanctuary.

Brother Ged enjoying a rare moment of rest
during a busy week of service in Lourdes.

The formation of new volunteers is facilitated by a small multilingual team of hospitaliers who have a lot of experience of Lourdes. Angela Bergström-Allen and her son Johan worked as formators throughout the week, having both first come to Lourdes twenty years ago.

Angela revising her notes before a formation session.

Angela and Johan were particularly pleased to welcome among the first-time volunteers a fellow Lay Carmelite who had travelled to Lourdes from the United States.

Angela with three first-time volunteers in front of the Carmelite monastery of nuns
in Lourdes. Edna (left) is a Lay Carmelite from California.

Formation in a hospitalier's first year includes a detailed tour of the Sanctuary and the places associated with St. Bernadette, so that volunteers know best how to direct enquiries from pilgrims and tourists, and see how the various services of the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes work together.

  Hospitaliers on their first year of 'Stage' with the HNDL being given a tour of
the 'Accueil Notre Dame', one of the specialised buildings in Lourdes
that welcomes sick and disabled pilgrims.

New volunteers are also given practical training in how to use the specialist equipment that the Sanctuary has for transporting sick and disabled pilgrims around the 'domaine' area where the Grotto and churches are.

Hospitaliers being instructed in the use of specialist equipment.

In the second year of formation hospitaliers discuss the distinctive Christian perspective on welcoming and accompanying others, and the 'signs of Lourdes' (such as the Grotto, the candles, the water, the pilgrims from many nations) that point towards spiritual realities.

In the third year of formation hospitaliers consider the problem of suffering that confronts people so visibly in Lourdes. They also reflect on the Christian approach to the human person, and consider the cures that are associated with Lourdes and the scientific and theological processes for analysing them.

  During the third year of formation, members of HNDL meet for discussion with
Fr. Brian de Búrca (right), an Oblate of Mary Immaculate who serves permanently
in Lourdes as Chaplain for English-speaking pilgrims.

In the fourth year of formation, attention turns to how the hospitalier can live the spirit of service at home as well as in Lourdes. This is illustrated by the life of St. Bernadette, who left Lourdes to become a nun where she was known for her particular care of the sick and marginalised.

  A statue of the young Bernadette at prayer.

In their fourth year hospitaliers also visit the hospice in Lourdes where Bernadette lived after the apparitions and where she made her First Holy Communion.

  Brother Ged (right) with Johan at the hospice.

After completing four years of 'Stage', hospitaliers are invited to apply to the HNDL to make a public commitment of undertaking to come to Lourdes in service every year, when possible. This is known as the "Engagement", and is undertaken only after prayer and discernment, and with the consent of the Lourdes Hospitalité Council. Part of the spiritual preparation for the "Engagement" includes a meeting with a disabled pilgrim, and a day of prayer.

Hospitaliers about to make their engagement meeting with a disabled pilgrim
at the 'Christian Office for Handicapped Persons' in Lourdes.

The Carmelite hospitaliers were joined in Lourdes by fellow volunteers from The Catholic Association, an English charity that brings pilgrims to Lourdes every August, and in which the British Province of Carmelites participates. One of the Catholic Association hospitaliers, Isabel Tully, made her 'Engagement' commitment during the week.

  Isabel Tully (centre) with Carmelites and other hospitaliers
from the Catholic Association pilgrimage.

The 'Stage' week is not all hard work. Despite the long hours the Carmelite hospitaliers had some time for private reflection and for recreation together.

  At the end of the week the Carmelite hospitaliers took advantage of the beautiful weather to go up the 'Pic du Jer' funicular railway for stunning views of the Pyrenees.

Other members of the Carmelite Family from Britain will serve as Hospitaliers with the HNDL later this year.

For further information about the HNDL Stage and how to volunteer, please click here.