My names Andrew Buckley and I started coming to Lourdes with the HCPT before coming with my Diocese in the summer time. I learned about Stagé from my parish priest and began my journey to making my commitment in 2014 and made my engagement to the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes in 2018.
I started stage back in 2013. The only reason I wanted to do it originally was because a group of friends wanted to do it from my home diocesan pilgrimage. As the dates were confirmed for when we could go it turned out that my School holidays (I’m a teacher) didn’t quite fit with the rest of the group. This all being down to the secular (but we really mean Atheist) world we live in. So none the less I filled in the form on the HNDL website, a week later got my letter to confirm they knew I was coming and had my accommodation booked. By the way I kept hold of the letter purely because they addressed me as Monsieur! This small but exciting (for me) letter was enough to confirm to anyone that I’d never organized a trip abroad to go alone before.
The first day arrived I went down to the Bureau to collect keys and announce my arrival. Went to my accommodation to drop my belongings before attempting to find were my service would begin. Remember I said I couldn’t speak French? Having been told on my diocesan pilgrimage about ‘The Baths’ and only ever going into them once, hearing that my service to begin by something called ‘Le Piscine’s’ was difficult for me to translate, perhaps until this point my life had been rather sheltered for me to not know this simple French term, either way I got lost trying to find what this place was called with no sense of direction or help due to the language barrier. Eventually I found them by the afternoon as one of the Hospitaliers simply walked me to where I needed to be and then I was able to begin my service.
My service for the week consisted of working in the baths pretty much entirely while I was there. The reason being that there was very little in terms of pilgrimages coming at this point because officially the season hadn’t started. The exception was being able to work at the train station for two mornings.
I was quite lucky that with my diocesan pilgrimage I had gained some experience of working in the baths. As a result I understood the process of bringing pilgrims through and what prayers to say and which saints to ask prayers of for example. This process was exactly the same as when I went back on Stage. The difference might be that there is a slight hand grip or hold that would be done a different way when supporting pilgrims into the baths. I discovered quite quickly that depending on who you are with, in the cabins, that can determine just how enjoyable your service will be that day. If it hadn’t have been for my experience previously in knowing the baths it may have turned out that a few days of service in the baths weren’t entirely enjoyable for fear of getting anything wrong. I’m pleased to say that this was a rarity for me. The majority of the time when I go to the Baths to serve I find myself mixed in with a group of Italian men who find my flamboyance quite entertaining when trying to communicate. I found that if I can’t speak the language quite as fluently as I’d like, being quite exaggerated in my movements and facial expression worked quite nicely. It may have lead the Italians to say that I reminded them of Mr. Bean. Although later they went on to say that I must have had some sort of Italian lineage. Whilst they may have been joking, having this kind of relationship be built with people I would have otherwise never met before allowed me to realize that I was becoming part of something far greater than anything I’d had imagined.
With this group of Italians that I had made good friends with as my service continued, there came the time when we went to the train station for service to welcome in other pilgrimages and send some off back home. The first pilgrimage was one that we were seeing off. They were an Italian pilgrimage heading back to Napoli. The rumor was that we needed help load the train as early as possible because tradition was that Italian pilgrimages take a long time to leave (apparently) due to organisational reasons. I must admit it was quite chaotic on the platform but once the sick were on the train and everyone else eventually followed the train set off on time. The best experience at the train station came when the following morning we were to welcome a German pilgrimage into the town. If you can just hold the image of the chaos briefly described before made by the Italian pilgrimage; imagine my surprise when the German pilgrimage came in. I don’t know if you like movies or not but there is a film a few years ago called iRobot. In this movie robots try to take over a city but in doing so there’s a scene there they all arrive folded up on train carriages. As they all arrive they come on barriers and fold out and march down the train platform. I promise I’m not exaggerating when I tell you this German pilgrimage did exactly that. There was no need for us to be there to assist as they did it all themselves. Every single pilgrim came off the train and marched in perfect precision to the pilgrims around them. I leaned to my Italian friend who at this point didn’t always quite get my sense of humor and whispered into his ear “Don’t mention the war” His jaw hit the ground as I said it. At the same time of me saying it however the German pilgrims also revealed their red arm bands which to the untrained eye could have looked like something far more sinister alongside their brown shirts, but thankfully were just the crosses of the Order of Malta.
Alongside the service it’s important to remember you have to attend formation. I was ever so grateful to be able to attend formation whilst I was here because it gave me an opportunity to learn something about Lourdes that was not (and remains an afterthought) available to my own diocese. I learned about the story of Bernadette, who she was, what her family was like and what life was like for Bernadette while she lived in the area. Learning about this story brushed away any doubts I had about what Bernadette saw. Alongside this seeing the miracles on display in the bureau buildings it made me realize that when at home we may use the term ‘miracle’ and mix it up with the words myth and legend. Since my first stage telling people that the miracles that have taken place are under no circumstances to be misunderstood as anything other than “REAL” I get some curious looks and surprised expressions from people.
Since realizing myself that the stories and miracles of Lourdes are all real and should not be disputed, it was laid before me just how important it is that we, as Stagiares and Hospitaliers, go to Lourdes to serve those that are most in need. By doing this and helping anyone and everyone that comes into our path, through this service, we all are given the opportunity to meet God. Such an experience leaves you with such a sense of fulfilment and more importantly humility. That in itself is the reason I want to go back to Lourdes as often as I can, to gain that experience again and again. It was once told to me that the miracle of Lourdes is just that. The fact that people will always come back.