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Pupil pilgrim discovers Lourdes can transform lives for the better

Nicola Martin, an S6 pupil at St Ninian’s High, describes her touching and transformative pilgrimage experience

In the weeks, and even months, before going on pilgrimage I was told time and time again that ‘Lourdes changes you.’

Of course I smiled politely and nodded when this was said to me, but I am not a person who subscribes to cliches and—despite being eager to spend time aiding the sick and exploring the fascinating Grotto—to say I was sceptical about how much this approaching trip would ‘change me’ is probably an understatement.

Our primary job, as part of Paisley Diocese’s Youth to Lourdes group, was to assist the 80 sick pilgrims from the various diocesan parishes on their pilgrimage.

However, what we did went a lot further than that. We cared for our fellow pilgrims, we entertained them with our vast array of God given talents, and I’d like to think we helped to enrich their lives, even just a little, with our youthful enthusiasm and our own spirituality.

I had the pleasure of meeting a very lovely lady during my time in Lourdes. As I did my best to manoeuvre her wheelchair along the hilly streets of Lourdes town (this was my first time pushing a wheelchair, a fact I decided to reveal after I had safely returned her to the hotel), we discovered my old parish priest is her new one and considering we come from different parts of the diocese that finding was pretty exciting.

At the end of the week, we were given the opportunity to write a letter to our pilgrims and in my atrocious handwriting I thanked my pilgrim because, while I was doing my best to make her time enjoyable, she cared for me in return and ensured that I, too, had a wonderful week.

Naturally the picturesque space of the Grotto and the rich history of St Bernadette were fundamental to the overall success of the pilgrimage, but I’m a firm believer in the fact that who is with you while you’re experiencing these things is key to how you understand it all.

We were tremendously lucky in this regard. Everyday I was surrounded by young people of diverse personalities who, like me, were in Lourdes because God brought them here, but we couldn’t have gotten on so well if it hadn’t been for our fantastic leaders: Iain, Gemma, Kerry, Rhys and Carolann. They worked relentlessly to ensure we had the best and most fulfilling trip.

We were also joined by the diocese’s youngest priests, Fr Jonathan Whitworth and Fr Matthew Carlin, who mixed in with us exceptionally well due to their friendly faces, unique personalities and their ability to take a joke—specifically surrounding their fashion choices.

All laughing aside I know my friends and I will be forever grateful to Fr Matthew who swiftly intervened when some boys decided to have a rave at 3am on the coach journey home.

Alongside Gemma and Iain, Mgr Denis Carlin was instrumental in the achievement of the musical Liturgy, which was made up of the youths and who played at every Mass passionately and with so much energy.

As if being in charge of 62 teenagers wasn’t enough, our youth pilgrimage director, Fr John Morrison, poured his time into sharing some really thought-provoking reflections with us everyday which allowed us to explore our spirituality while being in the powerful presence of Mary, our mother.

My roommate, Erin, expressed what he did for us in a lovely way when she said: “Fr John nurtured us physically, emotionally and spiritually throughout the course of our pilgrimage.”

Perhaps linking with my aforementioned scepticism is my reluctance to express emotion in front of others.

However, even a usually collected girl like myself couldn’t help but feel her eyes tear up as we watched our diocesan family lead the thousands of other pilgrims, from all over the world, in celebrating our Faith with not only ­reverence but hope and joy during the Marian Torchlight Procession.

I spoke with Fr Jonathan about this profound experience and he summed it up wonderfully: “We were all experiencing the Church at Her most perfect and most beautiful because it’s the young people taking care of the old, and the old inspiring the young with their own Faith and their own ­perseverance and trust in the Lord who wants to heal them and restore them.”

His words struck a chord with me and I happily remember strangers clasping my hands as they passed me and in particular a Spanish nun who kissed me on both cheeks, delighted I could say gracias back to her. The procession was a snapshot of the beauty of humanity, and the beauty of our Faith.

In Lourdes I had the privilege of watching my close friend, Louise, say yes to God through Baptism. I got to renew the Sacrament of Reconciliation at our poignant ­penitential service. I washed myself in the baths of the sanctuary of Our Lady. I did all of these things with the knowledge that God was guiding me, a fact that hadn’t fully dawned on me before.

Fr Matthew explained what I was feeling perfectly. “People are drawn here because they believe in something,” he said. “When they come here, what they’re doing is acting on that belief either by helping people out or by performing works of penance, prayer, charity, so on… for a lot of people this is their first experience where it’s very clear and obvious that the works that they’re doing are inspired very directly by what they believe.”

But what can we do with this knowledge? Speaking to Bishop Keenan, one of the youth’s greatest encouragers, he suggested that we throw ourselves into sharing our Faith with others, specifically sharing our gifts with our parishes.

“I got involved in terms of what I could do… young people are really ­talented and the way to get involved in the Church is by means of your talents, especially the ones which others don’t have,” he said.

I know I’m not alone when I say that in Lourdes we all ­discovered new talents and developed our other skills. Personally, I found myself volunteering for things I would never have dreamed about doing before.

The experience of Lourdes is one that harbours a transformative power, no matter your age or circumstance.

Just as Mary appeared to Bernadette irreversibly altering her life, so too we are changed in so many ways by this experience.

My Faith has been deepened, my relationships have been strengthened, and I’m happy to say I am now one of those people who urges others to go to Lourdes so they, too, can be changed for the better.

 

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