5:00am. That was the time when most helpers awoke to squealing alarms, eyes reluctantly opening as the realisation hit, that the departure day for Lourdes had finally arrived. It had been a long wait for these five days in Lourdes, with months of expectation. And so we all struggled to prepare ourselves with hasty washes and quick last checks before showing up in our blue (first-timer) shirts at Dublin Airport for duty, where Ms Mazzucato awaited us De La Salle students. We had only a brief respite as we sat, expectant, tiredness pushed aside, awaiting the arrival of the pilgrims.Yes, there was a lot of anticipation for that moment. We had wondered what it would be like to look after the diocesan pilgrims. We knew it would be challenging. The days would be long, we were told, but, also, that despite the tiredness that would soon stiffen our limbs and leaden our eyelids, these five days would stay in our minds forever, that we would be rewarded with a feeling of great satisfaction. That was made very clear to us. It was true.
Duties began with assisting the pilgrims onto the plane. That was the start, the introduction. Arriving in Lourdes, we hit the ground running. We had to rush to our duties, which, for me, was in the refectory with Daniel and Stephen, serving food and attending to our pilgrims, while Jamie, Gavin and Kevin were off to reception. It was slightly disorganised at first, as the flights had been delayed and the pilgrims arrived at two different times. Two lots of dinners had to be served, and some pilgrims came to both!
We had an early start the next morning. Some of the helpers were up at 6:30am, having only gone to bed around midnight or soon after. Many of us only had five hours' sleep, but we didn't mind, because we had a purpose.
Our purpose in Lourdes was to help, to make the pilgrims comfortable. We were devoted to that and saw it through with great determination. Being a helper is as much a privilege as it is a giving of oneself and of one's time - helping these people, just being with them and talking to them, is gratifying. It makes us better, helps us to change into kinder, more loving versions of ourselves, and we are welcomed into a world where we meet some of the nicest men and women we would ever know.
As we worked in the Accueil, the hospital and temporary residence of the pilgrims, we came to know people who have been coming to Lourdes for years, sometimes even decades. Some had come as pilgrims for all those years, or as helpers, returning year after year. It was truly remarkable.
Everyone settled in nicely. Some of us had a little time to relax, but there were always things to be done. The pilgrims had a schedule to follow; mass every day and, occasionally, a special event: the night-time torchlight procession to the majestic St Bernadette's Church; visiting the grotto and getting a glimpse of the spring; going on a picnic; shopping, and watching us 'Blueshirts' mime the Stations of the Cross. For each of them, the pilgrimage was truly enjoyable and deeply moving.
Sometimes, the doors of the Accueil were hard to exit. A 'Whiteshirt' (an experienced helper in white shirt) might call your name, or there might be a little tap on the shoulder, and then you were off to work again. But it was nothing bad, nothing painful for us. Indeed, we searched for things to do in our free time, began to look for somebody to help, because it was our purpose. Rest came during the many masses. Sitting down became a danger for us, as, once the weight came off the feet, exhaustion rushed upon us, and it was not long before our visions became blurry and our eyelids began to slide down, heads drooping and minds easing, everything external fading to the distance as it became a struggle to lift those eyes. Because sitting anywhere was an invitation to sleep, to doze off for just a few brief moments.
Lourdes was a fascinating place, especially the quieter, more peaceful area of the Domain, the sanctuary around the grotto. Though it was crowded, thousands of people moving about in streams and waves, there was a sense of serenity there. With the grand, beautiful church rising above the main square, an atmosphere of deep spirituality pervaded, where, at night time, there would be a torchlight procession led by the pilgrims in wheelchairs and voitures (rickshaw-like vehicles), accompanied by their helpers. A very great contrast to what lay right outside the sanctuary gates: rows of shops and bustling streets, windows crowded with luminous statues of Our Lady and hanging rosaries arrayed in rainbows. It was a crazy place. Every shop sold souvenirs. Restaurants, cafes, hotels and hostels - the town was completely commercialised, and was, in my opinion, an artificial façade for what was a beautiful and unique place.
And it was a most fulfilling time. We 'Blueshirts' gathered every night, to perform on a specific theme. The theme chosen for us, the helpers from De La Salle, was the Rosary. Following a meditation on the four sets of mysteries, Daniel sang and played a little song that fitted with the theme. The pressure was on us though, as we had a special guest, the Archbishop himself, Diarmuid Martin. And then there was Father Paul Thornton, a past pupil, so we had to do well. I can only hope that we did.
Our return to Ireland brought a mixture of feelings. Sadness for most of us; we were leaving an amazing place and were saying our goodbyes. But then, there was also a sense of relief, that now we could go and lie down and get a full night's sleep.
We trickled out of the airport, as individuals or in pairs, returning to our homes, leaving behind us, but yet carrying, an experience that would stay with us for years. Each of those days meant something to us, each of those hours significant. We marched out of that airport with a renewed perspective and a greater determination to do good in this world. Because that is what Lourdes does. It inspires and it changes people. It makes them better. We can't ask for more than that.
Aaron McGinnity. 6th Year