Peter Chamberlain is the English speaking Councillor for St Bernadette Service, the formation service of Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes.
What Formation means to me
Whenever I think about the purpose of Formation within the life of the Hospitalité, I am reminded of the Hospitalité’s mission:
*To welcome pilgrims to Lourdes and especially sick and disabled pilgrims.
*To facilitate their pilgrimage and to make possible, through the service of its stagiaires and hospitallers, the major celebrations of the sanctuary.
*To pass on the message of Lourdes, as we received it from Bernadette.
We are all familiar with the first two points; they are the bread and butter of our everyday service in Lourdes. But I always find the third point more thought provoking.
Receiving and passing on the message of Lourdes underpins, permeates, and finds tangible expression in our service in Lourdes. Equally our experience of serving in Lourdes helps us to understand what the message of Lourdes is all about and how it is passed on. But what does the Message of Lourdes mean to me? How do I pass it on?
There is no single answer. We all respond to these questions in different ways and our understanding of what they mean develops and deepens over time. But it is the way we try to understand and respond to these questions that makes us hospitallers and not just voluntary helpers. And the way our understanding and response develops – a process that lasts a lifetime – is fundamental to our formation (with a small “f”) as hospitallers.
The message of Lourdes is also at the heart of the Formation that the Saint Bernadette Service provides. It is not confined to the module of that name in the first year programme: it is a thread that runs through successive years as well.
The first year Formation programme is different in character to successive years. For many people, this will be their first time in Lourdes and it is also a fact of life that a large proportion of first year stagiaires don’t return. This is particularly so among English-speaking stagiaires, many of whom will have come great distances at great expense, and for whom a week of service in Lourdes will be a “once in a lifetime” experience. The focus of the first year programme, therefore, is very much on imparting information and orientation, so as to be able to make the most of their week in Lourdes. Exposure to the message of Lourdes is a key part of this process.
I always stress to first year stagiaires that the message of Lourdes is not something transmitted 160 years ago which we somehow go on remembering. It is alive in the Lourdes of today: you only need to look around to experience it. “Go tell the priests to build me a chapel”: in the people gathered here from across the world you see the universal church being built. “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but the other”: the paradox of Lourdes is that In the midst of sickness and disability, something of this “other world” happiness is very evident in Lourdes, which comes out of the relationship between sick pilgrims and their helpers, and touches both alike. And the fundamental message of Lourdes is God’s love for Bernadette, a social nobody, expressed through Mary who treated her with the greatest kindness, respect and dignity. Whatever our condition, we are all precious in the sight of God and in Lourdes we are all invited to feel His love, as Bernadette did. And that love – the Message of Lourdes at its heart – is passed on through the interaction between us and those we serve, and also those we serve alongside.
Being open to everything they experience during the week is how first year stagiaires might start to discover the Message of Lourdes. For some, at least, this can be the start of their own journey of formation as hospitallers.
These are potentially the ones that come back for a second year, a large proportion of whom, four years or so down the line, will go on to make their Engagement as hospitallers. For them, Formation has a different focus. It becomes a form of accompaniment to their journey of understanding what the Message of Lourdes means for them, giving them the opportunity to step aside from their service and reflect on and share their experiences with fellow travellers and those who have made the same journey. “Why have you come to Lourdes again?” can be a question that provokes a very fruitful discussion for second year stagiaires, particularly when in talking among themselves they realise that the variety of experiences that draw them to Lourdes again are all aspects of the Message of Lourdes and our response to it.
The second and third year Formation modules explore the themes of Christian spirituality and its sources. The content provides a useful framework and springboard for discussion. Spirituality in Lourdes is something very concrete and close to the experiences of many and our engagement with the Message of Lourdes is not only practical and emotional, it is spiritual as well – all are interconnected. These modules don’t exist in a catechetical vacuum; they need to connect with the actual background and experiences of the stagiaires taking part. And when they do they bear fruit.
“Mission”, appropriately, is the discussion theme of the fourth year module. Mission is a very important part of the Message of Lourdes. Bernadette was given a very specific and immediate mission to pass on a message (“Go tell the priests…”). But, away from the Grotto, it took several years, up until she entered the Order of the Sisters of Nevers, for her to discern her lifelong mission to live and pass on the message she received.
It’s the same with us. We have an immediate mission to fulfill, in the service we give in Lourdes. But, away from there, how do we live and pass on the message of Lourdes in our home environment? Also, just as Bernadette had to consider her future after the apparitions, stagiaires in their fourth year are at the point of considering their own next steps. Most will wish to further their own mission by making their Engagement in the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes, but this not a step to be taken unthinkingly. The formation they have received over these four years will have informed and facilitated the decision they make.
The Formation that the Saint Bernadette Service offers concludes with the final preparation of Engagement candidates the following year. As formateur, one forges friendships with stagiaires over their years of stage and it is always a privilege and a joy to have accompanied them on their journey this far.
I said at the beginning of this piece that the way our understanding and response to the Message of Lourdes develops is fundamental to our formation as hospitallers and is a process that lasts a lifetime. If you have no other duties at the time, you are always very welcome as a hospitaller to join one of our Formation sessions – your Service will have the timetable. And your experiences, as someone who has gone before on the same path, will always be valued!