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Lourdes Pilgrimage 2016

3 November 2016

The journey began in Dublin airport, where we were put straight to work, assisting pilgrims in wheelchairs through security and to the boarding gate.  Very quickly we began to get to know the pilgrims, and this continued as we waited at the gate.  We were then assigned the role of "bagging" wheelchairs while everyone boarded the plane - putting all the wheelchairs travelling to Lourdes into labelled bags to be put into the hold.  However, once this had been completed and we were ready for take off, there was an issue with the tunnel used for boarding the plane, and the flight ended up being delayed for four hours.  The pilgrims stayed in good spirits, and several singsongs broke out as we waited on the plane.  However, when we finally arrived in Lourdes that night, tired and hungry, we were praying that this would be the only setback of the trip.

The following morning, we had an early start (just what we needed!) as all the "blue-shirts" (all school students wore blue t-shirts, while adult helpers wore white) were dispatched to their duties at the Acceuil, the hospital which was our base for the week.  Dan, Cillian and Dennis were assigned to the wards where they would be working, while Liam and I were given training in how to manoeuvre "chaises" and "voitures" (the names given to the chairs and chariots that the pilgrims sit in to travel around in Lourdes), since we would be working on Reception.  Once again, we were thrown straight into action, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was saying a mass for the entire Dublin contingent to open the pilgrimage at the grotto.  Dan, Cillian and Dennis were introduced to the pilgrims they would be attending to and set off for the grotto, while Liam and I were part of the team at reception responsible for getting approximately 180 sick pilgrims safely into voitures to travel the short distance to the mass as swiftly and efficiently as possible.  We were not only getting to know the pilgrims, as after a long day working in humid conditions, a table quiz was organised for all the blue-shirts, which gave us a great opportunity to meet people from schools all over Dublin.

The next day began in a similar fashion, although thankfully with a slightly later start, as the pilgrims assembled for a Penitential Service in one of Lourdes's many churches.  In the afternoon, after a Mass of the Anointing of the Sick, the five of us were given an opportunity to go to "The Baths," one of Lourdes's most famous attractions.  This was another memorable experience that many found quite difficult to describe; something you just have to do yourself.  We then returned to the Accueil to assist and accompany the pilgrims and helpers at Afternoon Tea.  Later on, our duties for the day completed, we headed out to a restaurant for the traditional De La Salle dinner, for all past and present pupils on the pilgrimage.  Just as with the previous day, the blue-shirts spent the evening together, with the event of the day being a singsong on this occasion. 

Meanwhile, past pupils Jason Flynn and Eoin Redmond also received their Bronze Medals at a ceremony that night to commemorate their 3rd year of working on the pilgrimage, having travelled to Lourdes for the first time as 6th year students in 2014.

The following morning, the Youth Mass took place.  This was a mass specifically dedicated to the young people on the pilgrimage, as well as in the Dublin Diocese.  Afterwards all the pilgrims and helpers set off for a picnic.  After several hours of singing, dancing and having a good time under the hot sun, it was time to return to the Acceuil in preparation for the Torchlight Procession that night.  This was another of Lourdes's best-known events; hundreds of people - pilgrims and helpers alike - all processing by candlelight.  It was an incredible sight to see, and is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip each year.  Following the procession, we hurried away to "Prairie" (each night all the school groups would come together for a period of reflection, and every night five schools had to do a short performance based around a certain theme).  That night it was our turn to perform, and we shook off our nerves to perform a song about our theme of Compassion, with Liam playing guitar.  We were relieved to get it out of the way, but by this stage we had got to know so many of the fellow blue-shirts that were our audience that it did not feel like as big of a deal.

The next day was our last full day in Lourdes, and that morning it was time for the students to act out the Stations of the Cross, where the stations are brought to life in front of the pilgrims by the blue-shirts.  The station we were assigned was "Jesus Falls a Second Time".  It was very enjoyable to form the scene without any props, albeit very difficult to hold our pose while a reflection was read!  I was in the role of Jesus, carrying Liam who was used as a makeshift cross, assisted by Dan who played Simon, while Cillian and Dennis were soldiers.  Later on we enjoyed afternoon tea with the pilgrims before all travelling together to the Farewell Mass.  If that didn't make it hit home that our time in Lourdes was coming to a close, then the events of that night most certainly did, when we all gathered for Farewell Parties in the Acceuil.  Our vocal chords had got plenty of use over the course of the week, but there was still time for one last singsong before we said our goodbyes.

Next morning, we were up early to travel to the airport.  Thankfully this time the departure went smoothly and soon enough we were back in Dublin airport, where we pushed wheelchairs and assisted the pilgrims for the final time.  We had learned a huge amount throughout the trip and made many new friends, young and old.  Dan, Cillian and Dennis had built up a strong bond with the pilgrims they looked after every day, while Liam and I had the opportunity to meet all the pilgrims as they passed through reception on their way in and out several times per day.  We all also brought pilgrims around Lourdes in voitures on various occasions, allowing us to get to know them even better.  As well as those bonds of friendship between helpers and pilgrims, we found that there was an amazing camaraderie between all the helpers, whether they were blue-shirts on their first pilgrimage or white-shirts on their twentieth.  It really is an extraordinary place, and as we returned home, some were already planning their return as white-shirts in the future!

Thank you very much to everyone who helped to organise this trip, helped us with fundraising, contributed towards the pilgrimage, and thanks also to Mr. Forde for looking after us while we were there.

Fergus Balfe


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