The Paradox of Giving

This article was posted on: April 8, 2024

Queen of Apostles parishioners travel to Lourdes, France to care for sick pilgrims.

Queen of the Apostles parishioners travel to Lourdes, France

In June of 2023, a group of 12 individuals from Queen of the Apostles Catholic Church in Tomah embarked on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Their main goal was to serve the sick pilgrims who traveled to Lourdes and stayed at the Accueil Notre-Dame, a medical facility in the heart of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes that tended to ailing pilgrims. The group from Queen of the Apostles hoped that by serving others, they would deepen their understanding of helping those in need. The volunteers were filled with anticipation for the profound joy and new experiences that awaited them. Their anticipation and excitement were palpable as they set out on this pilgrimage.

Lourdes is renowned for its miraculous healing waters and spiritual significance, which trace back to the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette. The place holds sacred value for individuals who seek physical and spiritual healing. The volunteers from Queen of the Apostles joined the North American Lourdes Volunteers, consisting of around 1,000 volunteers from diverse corners of the world, joining together to help those searching for healing and grace in this blessed place. This global collaboration among volunteers emphasized the selfless nature of compassion and service that we are called to give.

Accueil Notre-Dame, a mixture of both a hospital and a hotel, offered a unique combination of medical and hospitable help—a space that felt not only functional but also filled with warmth and compassion. With more than 20 chapels and a basilica, the volunteers participated in the Mass each day, helping the pilgrims to and from services and encountering Jesus through the Eucharist daily. There is also the Path of Bernadette, which traces the footsteps that St. Bernadette took to tell the news to the local priest that she had encountered Mary, the Immaculate Conception. The architectural and spiritual elements of Lourdes provided a rich backdrop for the volunteers’ daily activities, adding depth to their service.

Caring for Sick Pilgrims

Lourdes has a beautiful atmosphere of faith and history that continues to attract those seeking healing. The town is best known for its sites, including the Grotto, where St. Bernadette encountered the Blessed Virgin Mary 18 times. Today, it is a place of prayer, trust, peace, and unity that visitors can take advantage of in many ways. There are benches in a semicircle where pilgrims can spend time in silence, reflect and lay down their sufferings, worries and joys at the feet of Our Lady. Mass is celebrated at the Grotto daily at 10 a.m. in French, which is a beautiful celebration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in front of where His Mother appeared. The sacred sites and rituals of Lourdes provide a tangible connection to the volunteers’ faith, enriching their experience of service.

The volunteers’ trip spanned 10 days, starting on June 16 and ending on June 26. The first few days were spent getting everything ready to welcome and assist the pilgrims who were coming to seek spiritual and physical healing. Once the sick pilgrims arrived, the real work began. The days were long and filled with preparing meals, giving medical aid and hospitality to the pilgrims who had traveled there. The different stages of their trip highlighted the different ways of service, from the anticipation and preparation to the hands-on assistance provided during the arrival of the pilgrims.

The volunteers from Queen of the Apostles Parish had a busy daily routine that involved a range of activities. These included preparing meals, providing hospitality, engaging in conversations, participating in the Mass and offering catechesis for about 25 young people. In the evenings, there were candlelit processions where volunteers, alongside the crucifix and a Marian statue, guided the sick pilgrims, pushing wheelchairs or offering support for those struggling to walk. It was a beautiful sight to see so many people serving and allowing themselves to accept their service.

These candlelit Marian processions that took place every night at 9 p.m. were especially noteworthy because different groups would lead the decades of the rosary in their native language. Father Matthew Bowe noted that while they were there, he recalled hearing the rosary led in British English, Spanish, Italian, French and some eastern languages as well. This resulted in the rosary being said by many people of different places, showing the depth of the Gospel and how universal our religion is. Despite all of the differences of ethnicity, culture and background, the shared knowledge and love of Christ and the life within His Church is alive.

Learning to Love Deeply

The first few days of volunteering went smoothly for everyone, but by Wednesday, the group was exhausted both physically and emotionally. Father Bowe referred to Wednesday as “Weeping Wednesday” due to the profound amount of physical tiredness and emotional exhaustion that the volunteers were experiencing. They were tested physically and emotionally to consistently provide care to those who needed it despite their lack of energy. It was a harder day than anticipated, but Father Bowe said it really helped them “learn what it means to love deeply.” These acts of complete selflessness and caring for people we don’t even know are how Christ calls us to love one another. The challenges faced on “Weeping Wednesday” became a pivotal day for the volunteers to deepen their understanding of sacrificial love and the true meaning of service.

The following day, Father Bowe described the group as “much more joyful.” He explained that there was a light and an energy around the volunteers that was almost electric. The group was more alive and energetic, helpful and attentive. This is what happens when we rely on the strength of God rather than our own. As Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” The previous day’s sacrifices and their dependence on God culminated in this fruitful day of energy and peace. While Weeping Wednesday was exhausting, this new day was filled with joy. The difference between these two days emphasized how relying on faith and divine strength can transform our physical challenges or struggles.

The Pilgrimage Continues

As Father Bowe reflected on his time spent in Lourdes, he noted that he “very much appreciated that time as a well-spring of peace and joy.” He thought of all they did day in and day out and “continues to draw strength and refreshment from the experience” upon returning. He explained that he was surprised that he wasn’t more fatigued upon his return to the U.S. Generally, trips like these require a few days of rest and relaxation before hopping back into a regular routine, but he said that he felt rejuvenated and full of energy when he came home. He has spent time on mission trips in the past, but this particular trip seemed to have made an impact not only on him but on the other volunteers who attended. Of the volunteers, some plan to return to Lourdes to serve there once again as they found a lot of joy and peace from their time spent there. The volunteers’ desire to continue their service and return to Lourdes was a testament to the lasting impact of their journey.

This trip provided an opportunity for spiritual growth and maturity to each of the volunteers who traveled to Lourdes, despite facing a few difficulties. It was an intimate encounter with the meaning of service, the intricate relationship between joy, pain and the profound sense of purpose that comes when one commits to serving others. The enduring impact of this journey on the volunteers’ spiritual growth emphasized the transformative nature of service and the universal principles of love and compassion. This story speaks not only about their experience but also about the universal truths embedded in the act of giving to those in need and treating our neighbors as ourselves.

Story by Eleanor Peabody
Published in the March/April 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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