BY Peter Diamond | May 24 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Pilgrim’s progress: the HCPT volunteers giving disadvantaged children the Lourdes trip of a lifetime

Peter Diamond reveals the trials, tribulations and ultimately the rewards, of taking on the role of leader with an HCPT group of helpers and children travelling to Lourdes at Easter last month.

When I arrived in Lourdes this year for what was to be my eighth pilgrimage at Easter it had a very different feel about it.

Usually I would be in charge of looking after a young boy, instructed by my group leader to ensure he had ‘the best week of his life.’

Whether that would involve telling jokes, playing games, making fun of myself or singing songs, that’s usually what my week involves and rarely do I deviate from that winning formula.

 

Becoming reality

However, at 4am on Easter Sunday my 2019 role hit me like a sack of spuds. The scheduled flight from Edinburgh wasn’t due to take off until 9am but it was at this early juncture, only four hours after I left my local parish during the final hymn at the Easter Vigil, that my role as group leader became all too real.

In actual fact that’s a bit of a lie, it became very real a number of months before, in October, when the group only had five members travelling in 2019 and myself and my friend Christine put ourselves forward for the leadership roles.

If we hadn’t become group leader and deputy, we would have denied nine wonderful children from disabled and disadvantaged backgrounds the trip of a lifetime.

When that thought is dangled in front of you, the only option is to say: “Yes, of course we’ll do it.” Even if it is terrifying.

 

Building numbers

From the fantastic five, who were with the group in October to Easter time, we managed to recruit 10 more helpers including two nurses, who are vital to the group, and 10 children, although there were to be a few late call-offs.

Back to the 4am pick-up in Ayrshire, which had seen myself and another helper collect a hearing impaired girl from her family home.

She was nervously excited with a beaming smile and eager to get on the bus. One down, only eight more to get safely to Lourdes and back again.

We were originally taking 10 children to Lourdes but during the trials of Holy Week the news was delivered that a boy who had been paralysed following a cardiac arrest had suffered a relapse and was in hospital, unable to travel.

That was a sad moment. But God works in mysterious ways. A few days later one of our male helpers took unwell with a virus and was admitted to hospital, meaning he also couldn’t travel. We were back to even numbers, four boys and four male helpers.

Thankfully there were to be no more call-offs from the boys but the new role I had assumed as group leader was beginning to test my limits.

 

Relief

When we arrived in Lourdes there was definitely a sense of relief. We had made it after months of preparation, planning and fundraising, and we even made Easter Sunday Mass at 5pm in the Rosary Basilica, which was led by Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell Diocese.

During the week I felt immense pride that not only were we helping the children on our pilgrimage but also we had allowed seven new helpers the chance to experience God’s Love in the most amazing surrounding.

Our opening Mass—opposite the Grotto across the river where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette—was a moving experience.

 

Reflection

In those quiet moments of Easter week we are given a much-needed chance to reflect upon our lives, on what God is asking of us and of what the true meaning of our lives is.

We are privileged to be able to share that with children who show so much love for us and help us understand the true meaning of service.

As the week progressed we travelled to Biarritz for a day at the beach where we shared a Mass with two other Scottish HCPT groups.

For some children it was their first ever trip to a beach—a sad fact that, if you dwell on it too much, will give you watery eyes. However, for most it’s usually the first time they’ve ever been to Mass at the beach.

 

Friendship

Another afternoon was spent at the zoo where children, who are socially isolated back home in Scotland, grew closer in friendship with their counterparts, bonding over feeding time for the monkeys and embracing and laughing together.

The children we took with us to Lourdes this year have their own unique stories. One girl was being given a bath one night by the nurses and another helper when she complained about the water being ‘too hot’ when the nurse was rinsing her hair with a cup of water. Surprised, the nurse explained that the water was lukewarm, tepid water and asked if she was OK.

 

Poverty

Sheepishly, the girl apologised and explained that she wasn’t used to hot water in her house, which rang true with what her headteacher had said prior to her coming to Lourdes: the hot taps in the girl’s house hadn’t been working for at least six months and quite possibly this 15-year-old had endured bitter cold water temperatures every time she got in a shower.

Taking children from poverty stricken homes is becoming more common within HCPT, a charity which was established by Dr Michael Strode in 1956 when he first took four disabled children to Lourdes.

Today more than 1000 children travel to Lourdes every Easter from the UK and the rise in children being taken from poverty for one week is no coincidence, with rising numbers of families struggling due to austerity.

 

Greatest beneficiaries

In fact, children from poverty-stricken homes are now HCPT’s greatest beneficiaries. The girl who had no hot water at home also had a rare medical condition, a disability which adds to the tragedy of being a child living in deprivation.

My decision to take on the leadership role in October was beginning to pay-off but not without one further test.

On the final evening we were having our final sing-song in the Jean D’Arc restaurant when one girl had a seizure, apparently her first for at least a year.

Without hesitation or doubt the group responded like a well-oiled machine and, without having to say much at all, the helpers knew their roles and how to play them.

 

Providing care

Our group’s four medical professionals worked together to provide care along with another kind nurse from a nearby Scottish group.

Other helpers and the chaplain distracted the rest of the children by holding a quiz in the nearby corner of the restaurant before leading them out to the Grotto for our closing service.

Meanwhile, our trustee was speaking to the paramedics in French asking for an ambulance.

We certainly were tested and thankfully within a matter of hours our girl was back with the group in the hotel.

 

Enriching experience

The next day we travelled home, exhausted but enriched that we had stayed true to the Easter message of becoming new again through God’s work, serving those in need, giving them all you have left and more, and receiving an abundance of love in return.

Reflecting on my first year as a group leader I would say that the theme ‘God’s Love is the Best Love’ certainly rang true throughout the build-up and in the week itself.

I couldn’t have got through it without God’s Love but I am only closer to God now because of my trips to previous pilgrimages to Lourdes with HCPT and the Scottish Youth Group (SYG).

The youth group doesn’t get enough credit for taking 17-to-21-year-olds to Lourdes. I wouldn’t be half the person of Faith I aspire to be without the experience of going to Lourdes with SYG.

This year there were times when I doubted if I was worthy enough or capable of leading a group in Lourdes but if you build a strong team around you it’s impossible to fail.

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