By Fr Andrew Gallagher
As the Assistant Director for the diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes and as a Regional Chaplain to HCPT (the Pilgrimage Trust that takes children to Lourdes each Easter), it is perhaps no surprise to hear that I have a great love for the place where Mary appeared to the young Bernadette 160 years ago this year.
Over the past 14 years I have travelled with thousands of pilgrims and seen the enrichment that everyone gets from visiting the shrine, whether that is spiritual nourishment, physical or mental healing, or just a renewed hope in humanity. And so, when I was appointed Chaplain to the Westminster Cathedral Choir School, it was my dream to take some of the boys to Lourdes to discover it for themselves.
The opportunity came about 15 months ago, when two priests from the shrine came to stay in Clergy House, on their way to a Conference for National Pilgrimage Directors that I was also attending. They concelebrated at the Solemn weekday evening Mass and were blown away by the music. So they asked whether the choir might sing at one of their liturgies; and the idea of the choristers’ pilgrimage to Lourdes was born.
After much planning, with the support of some generous donors and some careful packing, we travelled to Lourdes for the weekend of the feast celebrating the 160th anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady, on 11th February 1858. Our pilgrimage included the traditional visit to the Grotto where we lit candles, washed in the waters from the spring and said prayers.
We also celebrated Masses in some special locations, sang a small concert for the people of Lourdes and were housed in HCPT’s spectacular Hosanna House, overlooking the Pyrenees in the nearby village of Bartres.
The highlight of our pilgrimage was the opportunity for our choristers to sing a motet at the Torchlight Procession on the eve of the feast, and then several pieces, including Stanford’s A Song of Wisdom and the Agnus Dei from the Missa in simplicitate by Langlais, at the Anniversary International Mass presided over by Cardinal Baldisseri in the packed Underground Basilica.
As Chaplain I certainly had a wonderful pilgrimage and I hope the choristers did too! Here’s an account from one of them. ‘I have thoroughly enjoyed this trip. It made me more connected to God than I have ever been. It has been great fun and above all showed me multiple panoramas that blew my mind and made me realise how grateful I should be to God. The best part was when we sang in front of all the people in the Underground Basilica. This is because when I looked at them none of them were frowning. Every single person was happy. This showed me how much joy God and our singing gives to people and that I can finally help people and not be a super hero. Overall this pilgrimage has connected me to God and most of all opened my mind to the beauty of life.’