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A Walk in the Shoes of Young Pilgrims

It is a common sight to see the older Catholics and clergy on pilgrimage. Ever wondered what attracts the youth to a pilgrimage? What motivates them to come when the world out there has so much to keep them engaged and entertained? Here is a first hand encounter of youth from the Catholic chaplaincy for London universities, Newman House, as they served the malades living in St Frai in different capacities. St Frai is a place of hospitality with complete medical facilities and trained staff to care for the sick, elderly and the frail who wish to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The elderly and sick, referred to as maladies, are encouraged to join the pilgrimage every year and are in constant need of helpers to look after. Newman House had 20 students volunteering at the St Frai this year, under the able guidance of medical staff and experienced volunteers and the leadership of Fr Stephen Wang, Senior Chaplain, and Sr Carolyn Morrison, Social Outreach Chaplain.

Sylvia, a volunteer who was visiting Lourdes for the first time, said, ‘I wanted to come as  a carer for the past two years but it never materialised due to changing circumstances, but this year it all came together with a little support from Fr Stephen, of course.’ Her duties involved waking her malade every morning, bathing her, looking after her needs for the whole day, taking her to diocesan events, right up to tucking her into bed after dinner. Sylvia explained how it made her more aware of the needs of the elderly and other dependent family members, and how it feels to put someone else’s needs and comfort first for nine hours of the day. The malade was a recluse at first but opened up in the following days, sharing stories of her life’s experiences. Sylvia said that her experience was quite intense, physically and emotionally, but thoroughly rewarding, especially to hear her malade saying thank you. Her eager message to others is that they must go and experience Lourdes if an opportunity arises.

Rose, a medical student, who served as a medical assistant, says, ‘Although being a non- Catholic, mine has been an amazing experience and one that I am excited to share with others.’ Another student, Kierra, had a special experience. It was her second time in Lourdes, but her first as a carer. She is currently discerning a vocation to the religious life, helped by her spiritual director Sr Carolyn, who encouraged her to come Lourdes for an opportunity to experience the richness of serving people whilst making a few friends. Kierra says her malade was chatty and interesting, and believed in putting her best foot forward, wherever she went.

Oliver, another student volunteer who visited Lourdes for the fourth time this year, was quick to add that serving as a carer for the last three years, he feels a part of the St Frai family especially with the Cardinal visiting the sick at St Frai, which makes it even more special. He spoke about how Newman House goes about recruiting volunteers for the pilgrimage every year. Nick Leonard, the Chief Brancardier (chief stretcher-bearer), gives the students a talk about the pilgrimage inviting them to consider volunteering, and fundraising events are arranged early on in the year, which helps build a base of student support.

On being asked would she visit Lourdes again as a carer, Kierra confidently replies, ‘yes’, saying she has already volunteered for the 2018 pilgrimage. She reminisced about visiting Lourdes five years ago as a Redcap and compared it to her experience this year, especially as she is discerning a vocation at the same place.

The penitential service was definitely the highlight of Oliver’s pilgrimage. For Kierra, the highlight if the pilgrimage was the Baths, rightly put in her words, ‘The Baths are an experience, not only because the water is 12C, but also as it is water from the very spring that Bernadette dug. The experience does not hit you at the moment, but sinks in later as you return to normal life.’ To sum up her Lourdes experience, she said, ‘Seeing the international Church and hearing prayers in different languages, brought a feeling of collective support in the midst of vulnerability, with all sharing the same goal of wanting to come closer to Mary.’