Pope Francis wrote that “making a pilgrimage is one of the most eloquent expressions of faith.” A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a place made holy by a heavenly encounter. From May 24 through June 3, St. John’s University students Paul Espiritu, Samantha Melendez, Keyla Peyano, and Theresa Vogel had the opportunity to visit one of those very special places: Lourdes, France.
The students were accompanied by Rev. John J. Holliday, C.M., University Chaplain. “As a priest, it was an amazing experience being at Lourdes once again. It is a unique opportunity to encounter people from all over the world in celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. As an administrator at St. John’s University, it was a wonderful experience to spend 10 days with these students, to get to know them better, and to witness their faith and their dedication to serve others. Theresa, Sam, Keyla, and Paul represented our University very well,” he said.
St. John’s University has participated in the St. Vincent de Paul Service Pilgrimage to Lourdes, organized by the North American Volunteers Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality, for 13 years. This year, the four St. John’s students were part of a group of students from Harvard University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Duquesne University, Florida State University, and Lee University. The service pilgrimage included two days of orientation and training where the students learned about the story of Lourdes and St. Bernadette and took a walking tour of Lourdes.
On February 11, 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared to a young peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in the town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Accompanied by her sister and a friend, Bernadette went to the Massabielle Grotto on the banks of the river looking for driftwood to make a fire and sell some firewood to buy bread. Removing her socks to cross the small stream, she heard a great gust of wind in the stillness and looked up toward the grotto where she “saw a lady dressed in white, she wore a white dress, an equally white veil, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot.”
In a series of 18 appearances, the Blessed Mother revealed herself as “the Immaculate Conception” and requested that Bernadette “go, tell the priests that the people are to come here in procession and to build a chapel” at the site of the grotto where a spring of water was revealed to Bernadette. Bernadette Soubirous became a saint in 1933.
Since 1858, when Bernadette dug up the spring, 69 cures have been verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as “inexplicable” after what the Church claims are “extremely rigorous scientific and medical examinations” that failed to find any other explanation. The Lourdes Commission that examined Bernadette after the visions ran an analysis on the water and found that, while it had a high mineral content, it contained nothing out of the ordinary that would account for the cures. Bernadette said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick: “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.”
Bernadette’s request to the local priest to build a chapel at the site of her visions eventually led to a number of chapels and churches at Lourdes. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. One of the churches built at the site, the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, accommodates 25,000 people. Close to five million pilgrims from all over the world visit Lourdes every year to pray and bathe in or drink the miraculous water, believing that they obtain healing of the body and of the spirit.
The women in the group from St. John’s volunteered in the piscines (baths), prayerfully assisting women and children bathe in the spring water of Lourdes. “The experience was so profound because I got to pull away from the world that is so self-centered and so self-motivated, and I could focus on serving others,” stated Theresa, an English major in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Working in the baths was hard, and I was definitely tired by the end of the week, but the Blessed Mother gave me the strength and humility of Saint Bernadette to power through. It was so freeing to not think about myself and my future but instead to foster my faith with people all around the world.”
Paul graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. “During the pilgrimage, part of my service was sending off and receiving disabled and sick pilgrims from the local train station coming to Lourdes,” he explained. “Their willingness to overcome the long train rides and extreme heat made me appreciate the work I did.” Paul also worked in the piscines for men and assisted at the daily Rosary and Eucharistic processions.
The students attended daily Mass in several of the beautiful churches and chapels of Lourdes and participated in various prayer services and processions. One of the highlights during the week was a Mass at the Grotto of Lourdes. Fr. Holliday celebrated the Mass, and students assisted as lectors and choir members.
The group’s last day in Lourdes was on Sunday, June 2. After attending Mass, they had time to explore Lourdes and the surrounding area. They enjoyed an English breakfast at Eleanor’s Salon De Thé, and then visited the Funiculaire du Pic du Jer, which is a mountain cable car offering a spectacular panoramic view of Lourdes and the surrounding area. After shopping, they ended the day with dinner at Phi Long, a popular Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant.
The pilgrimage made a lasting impact on the St. John’s contingent. “For me, this trip to Lourdes was life-changing as it opened my eyes to the reality of critical ailment in the world,” said Paul “I was able to interact with international volunteers from many different countries and the cultural immersion was breathtaking. This was one of the best service opportunities I have ever performed and I definitely recommend it to everyone at St. John's.”