A team of doctors, nurses, carers and lay volunteers gave up their free time and, at their own expense, enrolled to look after over 40 patients and ensure a safe and comfortable experience at the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes for the sick. The pilgrimage, organised by the Archdiocesan Society UMTAL, consisted of 156 people and a guide dog. A number of relatives also accompanied patients. Pilgrims were also welcome to join this group. This religious journey was led by the Chaplain of the Society and Archbishop’s delegate, Fr Joseph Mizzi, parish priest of Santa Lucia.
Preparation and organization work starts early in the months leading up to the annual pilgrimage. Patients are examined and their medical and nursing requirements are assessed and provided for. Reservations for suitable accommodation, as well as dietary requirements and mobility aids, are ordered well in advance. Spiritual preparation for the pilgrimage also takes prominence. The Chaplain leads sessions of prayer and celebration of Mass for the organising committee, helpers and pilgrims.
Arrival at the airport was an exciting moment for all: the flurry at the check-in, the ferrying around of wheelchairs, the excitement of making new acquaintances and friendly greetings of returning volunteers, patients and pilgrims catching up from the previous year. Once all were settled in the departure lounge, volunteers got further acquainted with the new patients and where briefed about their particular needs.
On arrival at Lourdes Tarbes Airport, a very efficient team of local volunteers quickly aided disembarkation and lifter coaches were waiting for all to make their way to the three hotels reserved for the pilgrimage. Most hotels in Lourdes have facilities for wheelchair access but UMTAL also ensures that hotels are located close to the two main entrances to the Marian Sanctuary to ensure least possible wheelchair-pushing burden. Hotel rooms were allocated to cater for the individual’s needs. Also, a further 14 patients were made welcome at Accueil Marie St Frai, where accommodation for the more dependent patients and specialised medical facilities are provided. Dinner was served, the necessary medical and nursing care was given and all were settled in for a restful night in preparation for 4 full days of an unforgettable spiritual journey.
The morning started by following the Via Crucis on the prairie. The white marble stations of the Cross shining in the sunny morning inspired all as they contemplated on the suffering of our Lord on His way to be crucified: a gentle reminder that our sufferings pale in comparison to what He had to go through. The recital of the Rosary in this Marian site was very touching for all pilgrims. The place chosen to contemplate the Rosary over the River Gave, directly opposite to the Grotto of Our Lady, enabled all to experience the peace and serenity this Holy Shrine has to offer.
The medical team accompanying the Pilgrimage register annually with the medical bureau in the Sanctuary to attain authorization to treat patients in Lourdes and make use of all the medical resources available. In case of declaration of a possible miraculous cure, all doctors registered at the time are the first to be called in to examine the cured patient. A special religious function is held by the Sanctuary for these doctors to confirm their commitment to their patients and to ask for spiritual guidance and blessing during the pilgrimage.
The afternoon saw the group celebrate mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the St. Maximillian Kolbe Chapel. It is interesting to note that just one floor up, in the Chapel dedicated to St Cosimo and St Damian, a portrait of the first Maltese Saint Dun George Preca, has just been presented to the Sanctuary and naturally, this attracted a lot of pilgrims. The evening was lit up by the Aux Flambeaux procession. The Maltese flag swaying in the gentle breeze and the sound of the Maltese Hail Marys echoing round Sanctuary filled Maltese hearts with pride and fervent prayers for our Homeland. Walking in front of the statue of Our Lady, whilst reciting the rosary and lifting candles in prayer, brought to mind the experience of life as a journey supported by prayer.
The International Mass held in the underground Pope Pius X Basilica was attended the following day; a huge international crowd listened to mass in various languages, an experience of the universal church, with a procession leading the clergy, carrying flags of the participating regions and countries. This was followed by the customary group photo of the pilgrimage. Although this trip was not meant to be a tour but a pilgrimage, the afternoon was left free to attend a small excursion to the beautiful Lac de Lourdes; a beautiful, wheelchair accessible lake surrounded by forests where birds of prey can be seen diving for fish in the fresh water. Patients and pilgrims alike could appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.
An early morning Maltese mass in the Grotto was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage; a profound spiritual experience where all prayed together in our native language. This was followed by the physical and spiritual cleansing in the Baths; a moment of personal communication and prayer. A heavy downpour of rain later in the afternoon, made the underground Pius X Basilica once again the preferred venue where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was held. The ceremony has a symbolic moment where doctors accompany the Sacrament during the blessing as a reminder of the daily miracles witnessed every day through the hands of God’s healers on earth.
The last day was celebrated by a mass and the Anointing of the Sick to conclude the pilgrimage. This mass was followed by a ceremony known to volunteers as the “Impegno”, where they all renew their vows to commit themselves to helping the sick and aiding them in this unique pilgrimage. Illness tends to isolate people confining them to their homes and limiting their experiences. But this commitment gives the sick an opportunity to go out of their comfort zone and enable them to present themselves in the open to the blessings of Mary our Mother. One of the striking things about the volunteers is that, although they come from all walks of life and from different generations, they all go out of their way to make the patients’ pilgrimage as comfortable as possible, helping each other out and carrying out duties that they never imagined themselves doing.
UMTAL’s return to Malta was hampered by flight delays but with the help of the volunteers up to the very, last minute all were safely off the plane and on their way home. In the meantime, the wheels are already in motion as preparations for the next Archdiocesan pilgrimage planned for the third week of July 2019 are already underway.
UMTAL are a non-profit making voluntary organization.