As our nation pauses to honor the servicemen and women who have gone before us this Memorial Day weekend, it will take on a significant meaning for a special group of wounded military who have just returned from Lourdes, France. They took part in the International Military Pilgrimage, which has occurred annually for more than 50 years. Their journey was made possible by the North American Volunteers of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality.
In 2008, the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, the North American Volunteers, based in Syracuse, N.Y., took their first group of 26 wounded or disabled veterans from the United States for a week of special healing services at the French shrine. Last year, that number rose to 87, and this year 125 soldiers participated in the week-long pilgrimage.
Marlene Watkins began Our Lady of the Lourdes Hospitality in 2002 as a response to her own powerful experiences at the shrine almost 10 years ago. Since then, she has accompanied hundreds of pilgrims to Lourdes.
Her inspiration to start bringing wounded soldiers to Lourdes three years ago came from her own awareness as a military mom. Her son was in training at Fort Benning, Ga., when his drill sergeant committed suicide.
“I became more aware of the great suffering and great despair in the military,” she said.
Watkins pointed out that the pilgrims her apostolate brings come from all branches of the military. Many are not even Catholic. Inevitably, she said, by week’s end a strong bond has formed among the soldiers. “They are brothers at arms, and being in a holy place with each other they are able to help each other, and that is a big part of the healing that happens,” Watkins told Our Sunday Visitor.
“Christ is the divine healer,” she said. “There is a great grace at Lourdes, and we know that many people have experienced great healing there. They find peace and find healing that is inexplicable.”
Medical Command Officer Maj. Brian Weber from the Texas Army National Guard has assisted as a volunteer each year of the pilgrimage. A series of events in his own life had caused him to question his Catholic faith. In 2005, he lost his 18-year-old son in a fatal car accident. Soon after, the 48-year-old physician’s assistant found himself in Iraq for a year-and-a-half tour of duty.
After returning to the United States, he was asked to take part in the military pilgrimage. He thought it would be a good chance to get away. “I thought I would just go over there and take care of some colds and drink wine and eat onion soup at a local café,” Weber told OSV.
Instead, he said, the Blessed Mother had other plans for him.
“I went down to the grotto, and the Holy Mother said to me that she knew what it was like to lose her only Son,” Weber said. “And she is caring for her Son and my son.”
That was the start of a much better life for Weber. Since Lourdes, he said his life “has turned around 180 degrees.” He’s returned to Mass and the sacraments.
Life at Lourdes
Since 1958, Our Lady of Lourdes has been the site of the annual International Military Pilgrimage. Since then, the annual pilgrimage has grown to include participants from more than 30 countries.
This year marked the second journey to Lourdes for Father Dan Farley, a former Army chaplain who has served as the group’s spiritual director both years. He told OSV that he has gone as both chaplain and a pilgrim seeking the Blessed Mother’s intercession. Father Farley, a priest in the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wis., has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“For all of us, Lourdes radiates a presence of healing, compassion, peace and hope. It has been my privilege to assist many in letting go of past afflictions and, working together, opening the door of their soul to healing and hope,” he said.
As soldiers and veterans from the armies of the world met this month for the 52nd year, Father Farley told OSV that this annual Lourdes gathering is a great sign of peace and unity among all nations.
“I was awed to witness, standing outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a vast crowd, consisting of thousands of soldiers, representing nations that at one time had been in combat against one another, all standing together in prayer, petitioning the Lord for peace and supporting one another in seeking healing and hope,” he said. “Who could ever forget such a scene?”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin. For more information, visit www.lourdesvolunteers.org.
Prayer Break With Pilgrims (sidebar)
A new website created by Catholic evangelist and musician Michael John Poirier provides a firsthand glimpse of this year’s military pilgrimage. Poirier and his family helped last year on a pilgrimage sponsored by the North American Volunteers. This year they brought their video camera with them, hoping to capture the sights and sounds of this unique military trip. “We hope that our short videos of 10 to 15 minutes will be inspirational as well as educational as it gives a scene of our Church that many people don’t know about,” said Poirier.
To learn more about these videos visit www.prayerbreaks.com.