What can be said that conveys the inscrutable transcendence of a pilgrimage to Lourdes? I’m somewhat at a loss, but I’ll try, because although such a journey is not without pain and disappointment, it is the nearest thing to heaven in all the experiences of my lifetime. And such good news must be shared.
Kate was nominated by our pastor, Father Jim Baron, to journey with the Order of Malta, Western Association last fall after I shared with him the trials we’ve experienced as a result of her genetic neurological condition and resultant benign brain tumor. He is a chaplain for the order and happened to receive the application forms the day we spoke. You might call it Divine Providence.
The Order of Malta was officially recognized in the early 12th century as a lay religious order by Pope Paschal II. But, the Knights Hospitaller had already been active in the previous century, establishing a hospital in Jerusalem to serve the poor and sick of any race or religion on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
This mission — to be the love of God to friend and neighbor — is still the best way to characterize the Order. Its motto is “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum,” which can be translated as “nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick.”
The Muslim expulsion of Christians from the Holy Land caused the Order to take on a second charism — defense of the faith — but that wasn’t the most prominent feature of our intensely Catholic trip. What struck me was the paradoxical combination of the profound, shared sufferings of the malades (those experiencing serious or life-threatening illnesses) and the unity, purposefulness, and happiness of everyone gathered for the pilgrimage — the Body of Christ made manifest in both suffering and joy.
We malades and companions were encouraged to view ourselves as invited by Mary, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Lourdes, to experience the infinite love of her Son there at daily Mass, in the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick, in the baths, and in the dignity, beauty, and grandeur of the Church’s processions, art, architecture, music, and rituals.
We said the Stations of the Cross together (twice!), prayed the rosary together (in several languages), knelt on the hard ground (they don’t believe in padded kneelers, apparently) and prayed together, laughed and cried and ate good French cheese and drank good French wine together. We were as one in our broken humanity and in our call to share in the Divine Life.
On one of the last days, Father Pat Brennan, a Passionist priest from Detroit, gave the homily and told the story of his Irish grandmother. She grew up in extreme poverty and developed a taste for chicken necks, which she would carefully consume one small morsel of meat at a time. At these moments of humble bliss, she’d remark to the family — “All this, and heaven, too.” After Lourdes, I can’t add much to that, other than now I have some sense of just how good heaven is.
To learn more about what makes Lourdes a major pilgrimage site for Catholics, read about the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous.
To learn more about the Order of Malta, visit the website, www.orderofmaltawestern.org.
Photo above: Participants in the Order of Malta’s pilgrimage to Lourdes in May are pictured with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (Back Row) Eileen and Bill Maggio. (Front Row) Jen Koop, Kate Koop (malade) and Cardinal Dolan. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Maggio)