The 2023 Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle Lourdes Pilgrimage took place between Friday 28 July – Friday 4 August. The pilgrims were accompanied to Lourdes by Bishop Stephen Wright, the Diocesan Pilgrimage Director, Fr Michael Humble and a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Mick Davison, one of our pilgrims, shares his experience.
After a gap of four years I looked forward to the first post-COVID Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes with expectation and optimism, mixed in with a degree of anxiety and concern.
It would be great to be back as part of the Diocesan family but we were relatively small in numbers. Would we be able to provide the expected high levels of care to our assisted pilgrims? Would we have enough helpers to provide outreach support to pilgrims in hotels who needed assistance? The anxieties and concerns were quickly forgotten as we gathered at Newcastle Airport.
There was a great feeling of joy as old friends greeted each other and welcomed the first-time helpers who had responded generously to the appeal for assistance. After a short delay everyone safely boarded our flight to Lourdes. As soon as the seat-belt sign was switched off Bishop Stephen was at the microphone at the front of the plane introducing himself to us all and leading us in prayer.
The opening Mass at Lourdes was a wonderful and joyous celebration, with a feeling that Bishop Stephen was leading us forward in a new beginning for our pilgrimage and diocese. He told the congregation that he looked forward to speaking to everyone during the week, but asked for understanding as he came to terms with our dialects. He then introduced us to his own West Midlands dialect and congratulated the music group on the ‘bostin’ music at the Mass (official episcopal translation of bostin is great).
Our Diocesan pilgrimage was blessed from the start. We were joined by thousands of young people visiting as part of their journey to World Youth Day in Portugal. On the Saturday and Sunday evenings the underground basilica of St Pius X became a huge dormitory for over 3,000 young people. We shared the leading of the Torchlight Procession with Arundel and Brighton and Salford pilgrims. Some of our helpers were given the privilege of carrying the statue of Our Lady. Being joined by the World Youth Day pilgrims turned the procession into one of the most vibrant, joyous and prayerful experiences that even those of us who had been to Lourdes on many occasions could remember, with traditional Marian hymns; singing and traditional drumming from the African contingent and an American choir that reminded everyone of Sister Act. The Rosary Square was full. A request was made for a period of silent prayer for the young people travelling to Portugal. I thought: ‘There’s no way you’ll get silence in a crowd this size’, but as though someone had flicked a switch, there was complete silence. It was a hairs on the back of the neck moment as tens of thousands of pilgrims united in prayer. The procession ended with the young people who did not make it into Rosary Square performing a unique Mexican wave with their lighted candles.
There was universal agreement that this year’s was one of the best pilgrimages ever, and that after four years without a Diocesan pilgrimage – and the recent difficulties we had all experienced – it marked a new beginning during which solid foundations had been laid for the future of the pilgrimage and the diocese. Monday saw us gathering at the Grotto with Salford, Shrewsbury and Wrexham. John Arnold, the bishop of Salford, presided at the Mass, at which our musicians teamed up with Shrewbury’s to lead the music. In his homily Bishop John reminded us that, like Bernadette, many of our neighbours live in poverty and that is our responsibility to respond as a Church and as individuals to serve those in need. One of the big changes since our last pilgrimage was our response to Our Lady’s request during the ninth apparition on February 25, 1858: “Go and drink from the spring and wash yourself there”. Traditional bathing was replaced by the water gesture – geste de l’eau – as it was decided bathing posed too great an infection risk. Pilgrims are now invited to stand at the head of the baths. After offering their private prayers, they are offered water from a jug to wash their hands and face before taking a drink of Lourdes water. Some pilgrims expressed disappointment at not being able to bathe, while others found the new arrangements to be meaningful and prayerful. Older pilgrims recalled a message from the late Fr Tom Cass that to enjoy Lourdes you must: “Work hard, pray hard and play hard”. Our helpers certainly worked hard in caring for the pilgrims staying in the Accueil Ste Frai and providing outreach support to those in hotels who needed assistance. Prayer was evident throughout the week in our Masses, the processions and other services we shared, as well as in the times of personal and quiet prayer. It was great to meet up with old friends and forge new friendships. The social highlight came on Tuesday when we gathered in the grounds of the Hotel Gallia Londres for a garden party. The sun shone on an afternoon of relaxation, fun, song and entertainment, with a special guest appearance from two members of super group ABBA (aka Clare and Lee).
We gathered in the Rosary Basilica on Thursday afternoon for the final Mass of our pilgrimage. In his homily, Bishop Stephen recalled the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette, reminding us of the importance of this encounter and the importance of our own encounter with God, of the examples of service in Bernadette’s life and the service we had shared and witnessed. Reflecting on the theme of 2023 pilgrimages to Lourdes, ‘Go tell the priests to build a chapel here‘, Bishop Stephen encouraged us all to go home and tell everyone about our experience, to tell about the God-given truths we had received and to encourage people to join us on pilgrimage. He emphasised the importance to our Diocese of Our Lady’s message “to build a chapel”, of finding time and space to encounter God as we rebuild the Church in Hexham and Newcastle, and of the importance of formation. Just as Our Lady had taught and instructed Bernadette to prepare her to relay her message to the world, we should make use of the opportunities for formation to prepare us to evangelise and to share the joy of the gospel with others, especially those in need.
At the end of Mass, we left the Rosary Basilica to process to the Grotto, passing through in silent prayer saying our thanks for the blessings we had received, and placing the future of the Diocese and the pilgrimage in the hands of Our Blessed Lady.
With thanks to everyone involved in organising the pilgrimage, to all my fellow pilgrims and special thanks to Bishop Stephen for his leadership, example and friendship. Lourdes 2023 was a certainly a ‘bostin‘ pilgrimage.
This article first appeared in the September 2023 edition of Northern Cross.
You can view our photos from the pilgrimage below.
All images have been re-produced with the kind permission of Mike March (Pilgrim Photography).