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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2001
--- Volume XVI No. 2

Youth on Fire
Lourdes pilgrimage sets faith ablaze
               

By Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

This cannot be taught. Books are written, homilies delivered and whole college courses are designed around the issue of Catholic social teaching. The Church instructs that service to the poor is obedience to Christ's command, and many a priest concludes the Mass with the exhortation "Go in peace, to serve the Lord in the service of each other". But they are to many -- most? -- words.

They are taught about Christian ministry in high school, about Catholic social teaching, about doing apostolate work, and these are good studies and good works. But Christ's lesson of service can only be learned by serving, by putting hands on those who need to be touched, and then knowing what it really means to serve.

The image comes to mind of the very frustrated Annie Sullivan, teacher of the young blind, mute and very stubborn and obstinate Helen Keller, in trying to break through to the very meaning of the words Annie spelled out by hand in Helen's palm. At one point Annie took Helen out to the front yard water pump, and thrust her hand under running water, repeatedly spelling out the word "water" in Helen's other palm. The excitement rose in Helen Keller as it all came together and she understood, for the first time, what the word meant, what it actually was. That incident was the turning point in her life of learning. Touching water and realizing what it was changed her whole world. She then took that lesson to everything else her life touched and gave it all new meaning. For the first time, she "saw".

For the past six years, youth groups from the Archdiocese of Chicago have traveled to Lourdes on a "working pilgrimage", meeting several times before the trip to go over the details of what work will be required of them at the shrine, and what this journey will involve. But they are totally unaware of what the journey will mean, unaware that they will have that earth-shaking conversion that would give their lives new meaning. This we know by what they have written after returning home. And even in these, we can see how they struggle to find an adequate way to express their sentiments about their encounters.

"Words cannot totally describe the experience", writes Josh Silverman. "No matter what I can talk about or tell you about Lourdes, there is nothing I can say or tell that can equal the experience of going and helping the people".

Ellie O'Connor writes: "When I was asked to write an essay about my experience at Lourdes I thought that it would be an easy couple of paragraphs, no big deal. But as I'm sitting here actually writing this essay, putting my words down on paper about the trip is a lot harder than I imagined. I have never experienced anything in my whole life such as Lourdes. Everything I did and saw made a difference in my life".

Working pilgrimage inspires
What did they do and see? First of all, the group's leader each year, Father Wayne Watts, makes it pretty clear in a letter he sends out to anyone even interested in considering this pilgrimage. "In Lourdes, we will avail ourselves to the needs of the Malades, the physically and mentally disabled pilgrims who visit the shrine with faith and hope", he writes. "We will live in very simple lodging and work daily at the Shrine of Our Lady. This is by no means a vacation! It is a religious pilgrimage that will involve much preparation, some hardship, and a great deal of personal sacrifice. It guarantees much satisfaction".

It starts with the long and tiring journey by plane and train, taking the better part of 24 hours to get there. It requires long days that begin very early and end very late, working in any or all of the places where help is constantly needed. It may be greeting the Malades at the train station and helping them with wheelchairs, baggage and whatever else their particular disabilities require; working in the baths, helping to "dip" the sick and disabled - sometimes on stretchers - into the healing waters; or working the procession lines at the ropes to keep the flow of pilgrims moving in an orderly direction.

"The baths were what changed me the most", recalls O'Connor.

When I walked into the little room, I had never been so nervous. I didn't know what I was going to do or see. The first lady that I helped touched me the most. She was very short with dark hair, and I can still remember her face. She spoke Italian, so I couldn't communicate, but the connection between our eyes helped. I really saw God in this woman. She was crying and praying before the Mary statue for five minutes. The other volunteer was trying to get her to turn around and she refused. I, too, started to cry watching this lady. I had never seen anything like it. That five minutes changed my life. This one incident made me realize how powerful the Church, God and Mary really are.

How much these youths know about the Church and God and Mary before venturing on this pilgrimage ranges widely. "It's a blend of youths who know their faith and those who don't", explains Father Watts, who is both an associate at Queen of All Saints parish and teacher/vice-president for Institutional Advancement at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, both in Chicago.

The "Skateboard Type"
He describes a "skateboard type" of young man who once took the trip just because he liked Father Watts. Father felt some trepidation at accepting him when the boy asked him "you mean people actually believe this crap?" after hearing more of the details. "I almost didn't let him go!" recalls Father Watts. "But I did, and I talked to him about miracles and told him not to bring the rest of the group down no matter what he thought". That was in August of 1997. The young man returned to Lourdes for All Saints Day, three months later. And when his best friend was in a traffic accident that left him in critical condition with questionable chances for recovery, he raced to the intensive care unit with a jug of Lourdes water and asked the friend's parents to rub that water on his legs daily. Today, defying doctors' expectations, the young man is recovered and walks normally.

The "skateboarder's" brother, a resident in a school for behavior disorders, was inspired to take the Lourdes trip, and was similarly warned by Father Watts to cooperate and behave. He turned out to be pleasant and helpful on the pilgrimage, and returned to convince his (non-denominational) school faculty and administration that they should all go to Lourdes as an exercise to complete the "fifth step" of a mandatory program of behavior growth, which requires experiencing other cultures and helping others. They did -- the entire group.

Others embarked on this journey of a faith that they were unsure of but wanted to understand better. Here are just a couple of examples: "At times [before the trip] I didn't take my faith truthfully," writes Francisco Monreal.

I was, in a way, a slacker. I always went to church, but it felt more like a chore. Something I had to do to keep my mom from yelling at me. When I would go to Mass either at school, or my parish, I would sometimes daze off and not pay attention. It was something that I had to do with my family. It was a routine. The Sunday before I left, I did pay attention though. I asked myself certain questions about my faith. Questions like 'Why am I here? Why go to church? What's the point of going for an hour?' And of course the ever famous 'Is this even real? Do people actually believe this?'

Then when I arrived at Lourdes on the first day of work, my whole world was turned upside down and it was actually clear. Just seeing the numbers of people who went to drink from the water made me believe. Helping people in the baths strengthened me deeply. These people came from around the world to drink and bathe. I guess it was the numbers of people that cleared my vision. One day I caught myself just staring down at all the candles. There must have been more than two thousand lights. It made me very proud of being Catholic. After seeing the shrine of our Blessed Mother, I, in a way, changed. I didn't care about any problems I had. It was like she took them away from me. She took the weight off my shoulders. I went there with doubts, and many questions. I came home with answers and a stronger faith.

Then there was the experience of Maureen Sullivan, fighting upheaval and anger in her life and doubts in her faith:

For the first 15 years of my life I lived in a completely Catholic environment, attending both a Catholic grade school and high school. With my move to London at the beginning of my sophomore year, I entered into an international school consisting of multiple religions and cultures. This influence caused me to question my faith and religion. Plus at the time, I had so much anger built up as a result of having to move and the fact that I was so unhappy in my new home, that I became angry with God. Therefore, I began to doubt my faith and question the way of the Lord. Yet, at the same time I was not looking to give up on religion forever, and frequently prayed to God for His help on how I could go about restoring my faith. Somehow, this pilgrimage to Lourdes stuck in my mind, and although I found it hard to believe that my life could be changed in two weeks, I had heard such good reports from previous trips that I knew it was something I needed to do.

Within the first 24 hours of my arrival a huge revelation was already made. In seeing the love that the sick and weak Malades still had for God even after such misfortune, I began to realize what faith truly is, an unending and unquestionable love and belief in God. I recognized that God is not someone you turn against and question in times of misfortune, but rather you look towards to guide and help you through hard situations. The most remarkable experience of my trip occurred during confession in Lourdes. I have never had a moment in my life when I have felt closer to God. The extraordinary and moving powers of God have touched me in so many different ways as a result of this pilgrimage and I can honestly say that my life has been changed forever.

"A Place Like No Other"
What is it about this Lourdes youth pilgrimage that seems to explode with grace and result in such conversions? "It is an amazing place, a place like no other", reflects Father Watts. "It give youths a sense of service and a sense of the universal Church. It has always been a working pilgrimage, because I want them to see Christ in serving others. Lourdes is a very emotional place. You see people there who are sicker than you've ever seen in your life. And they are treated so specially there. The Beatitudes come to life. Charity prevails. Hearts are changed. Hearts come to life. And you come back because of the prayer, because of how it has changed your life".

And many do come back. "The story and the miracles of Lourdes have quite a profound effect on the pilgrims who travel there, and despite three previous visits to this holy place, I was certainly no exception", writes John Marc Alban, one of last summer's Jubilee pilgrims.

I had previously thought I had these trips pretty much figured out. I realized, however, that they will continue to perplex me and affect me in ways that I will never truly be able to prepare myself for. This town represents so much of what it means to be Catholic, to be Christ-like. We had many opportunities to help the sick, participate in the numerous ceremonies and vigils as well as attend daily Mass. We were able to do so with open hearts and minds, accepting the many gifts offered by our Holy Mother. As an individual, I was able to spend much time at the grotto of Lourdes in deep prayer, thanking God and Mary for the many blessings I have been given in my life. The intentions and prayers I offered for others were represented by a few candles among a sea of flames. The mere sight of this representation of hope continues to stir such strong emotions within my heart and motivates me to try to become a man for others. Having returned from this fantastic journey, I believe it will take quite some time to grasp all that has happened to me during the days of our pilgrimage. What I do know is that with each of these trips, I have come to know Christ a little better. And despite the uncertainty of the future, I feel assured that I am at least heading in the right direction.

In the Holy Father's Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, "At The Close of the Great Jubilee", he addresses the subject of the youth who are so close to his heart.

Young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ. If Christ is presented to young people as He really is, they experience Him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept His message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross. For this reason, in response to their enthusiasm, I did not hesitate to ask them to make a radical choice of faith and life and present them with a stupendous task: to become "morning watchmen" (cf. Is 21:11-12) at the dawn of the new millennium.

Examined on Love
Judging from the testimonies of young people fired with the zeal of the Holy Spirit after a spiritual pilgrimage, they certainly seem up to the task.

Listen to them explain the lessons they learned:

"There is a popular saying that goes 'You come into life with nothing and you leave with nothing, except that which you have given to others", writes one teen, probably without realizing how closely this message mirrors that of Saint John of the Cross in his teaching that "at the end of life, you will be examined on love".

José Napoles writes:

When I saw how sick some of the people were, I began to feel sad, but after speaking with someone in our group, I realized I was seeing the glass half-empty. At first I was only acknowledging that the people coming into the baths were very weak and sick. I was filled with so much sadness until an old Irish American man in a wheelchair came to be dipped in the baths. I helped him in the bath, helped him put on his shirt and pants, I helped him put on his shoes and I helped him back into his wheelchair, but in the end he helped me. He helped me by saying three simple words: "I feel better". When I looked at his face I saw tears streaming down his cheeks, and at that moment I realized how much weaker I was than him. I saw him being stronger, I saw the strength in his faith, and I saw God in him.

The Helpers Became the Helped
So the helpers became the helped. The healthy American teens were humbled beyond their belief by the sick and the disabled foreigners who trusted them completely. Pope Paul VI, prophet that he was, observed that "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evengelii nuntiandi, n. 41). The witness to faith so evident in the Malades of Lourdes taught these students - and even a teacher accompanying them - lessons of holiness that did not require words.
Quigley teacher Tim Stoelinga makes this point so well in his deeply moving essay.

As a hospitality volunteer at the train station, I was asked to wheel a woman on a stretcher from the depot to her train car. She was a tiny, frail woman, completely unable to move, and her legs were curled awkwardly underneath her. As I gingerly pushed her to the assigned car, she seemed to slide precariously toward the edge of the stretcher. When we arrived at the car, I hoisted her body to a more stable position, and was surprised at how light she was. Then I quietly held her hand as we waited for the attendants to take her into the car. For five minutes we waited without speaking a word. Yet every time I looked down at her, her eyes were fixed on mine. They were beautiful eyes that revealed a glorious soul shining forth from behind a terribly broken body. All at once they were filled with love and compassion and suffering and pain. I never even knew the woman's name, but she changed me, although I wouldn't know just how much for a couple of days.

That was when the real meaning of my encounter with the woman would be revealed to me. It happened in the upper room of the bath house during my conversation with a Frenchman named Marcus. After a brief bit of conversation, Marcus said, somewhat out of the blue, 'Do you realize that when you look into the eyes of those sick people whom you are helping, that you are looking into the eyes of Christ?' Immediately the image of the woman at the station flashed in my mind, and I realized that he was right, and that I was blessed enough to have been able to look into the eyes of Christ and see a glimpse of his love and compassion and suffering and pain. Once again, I was changed. I knew that this page of the story was about Jesus' call to charity, and about my learning to answer that call over and over again. I prayed later that I would have the strength to carry it through when I returned home.

Not incidentally, these annual pilgrimages to Lourdes always include a second week visiting another site in Europe, which differs with every trip. This one, in the year of the Jubilee, included World Youth Day in Rome. That, itself, is yet another lengthy story filled with many lessons and lifelong memories. Returning from their time in Lourdes, many of these youths were concerned with that same thought Tim Stoelinga expressed of holding onto the lessons of encountering Christ in service, and being changed enough to live it out in their daily lives back home. The Holy Father offered them much encouragement.

In his opening remarks on World Youth Day, the Pope asked the young people

What have you come here to find? There can be only one answer to that: you have come in search of Jesus Christ! But Jesus Christ has first gone in search of you. It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise it is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal. Dear young people of the century now beginning, in saying "yes" to Christ, you say "yes" to all your noblest ideals. Have no fear of entrusting yourselves to Him! He will guide you, He will grant you the strength to follow Him every day and in every situation.

Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, also encouraged the young people to carry out this mission of doing the work of Christ in the world in which they find themselves, a difficult task in this culture.

In speaking about the message of mission after the Lenten retreat he recently led for the Holy Father, Cardinal George posed the question "What must we do to transform the impetus of the Jubilee into a constant element?" He explained that the answers will come from daily life and personal conversion. But how does that translate to the daily life of a teenager in the current social climate? "Young people have to have ways to stay in constant touch with the Lord", instructs the Cardinal, who, as Archbishop of Chicago, is the shepherd of this particular group of young people. "They have to inquire after the Lord's way of moving in their hearts. They can do this through prayers and with familiarity with the Gospels. They need to make good use of the sacraments of the Church, also".

Referring to his preaching in the Lenten retreat on the detachment that is the price of the Christian, I asked Cardinal George how teens should interpret and live out that call. "Young people should look for the poor", he responded. "The Lord will move them to mission to satisfy the needs of the poor wherever they are. That mission will take them out of their usual habitat".

They seem to realize that, and yet came home with the fire and zeal to at least start trying to reach beyond their usual comfort zones to serve others. This essay is typical of so many others: "I finally experienced the deep, heartfelt experiences of Christ and God that, up until this summer, were only something discussed in a classroom, or what the saints had", writes Paul Heiberger.

Service, love towards others, and devotion to Christ is what the time in Lourdes showed - their importance and their power when combined. The satisfaction and gratitude that one receives from the disabled visitor (or any visitor to the baths) is moving and wonderful. The work fulfilled me in a way that I have never felt before. From working during the time we spent in Lourdes, I am most certain that charitable service for Christ will be included in my life.

They saw the Face of Christ
They went to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, and they felt the Holy Spirit and saw the face of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father explains this -- as he has so very often before -- in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Church in America. "It is Mary who intervenes and He tells you (Jn 2:5). In this regard I once wrote that 'the Mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son's will'. For this reason Mary is the sure path to our meeting with Christ".

Later in that same document, Pope John Paul states: "The burning desire to invite others to encounter the One whom we have encountered is the start of the evangelizing mission to which the whole Church is called".

That burning desire is evident in nearly every essay in this group of 60 young pilgrims. Listen to this rundown of sentiments from several of them:

· I want to volunteer my time now to serve others. My overall message from Lourdes is that I need to use the wonderful gifts God gave me for the good of others. I plan on doing that.

· From Lourdes I have learned to serve without complaint. I have learned patience, and I have learned to give of myself without being selfish. I witnessed Christ in people's hearts through their generosity and kindness. This pilgrimage was definitely life changing.

· You are definitely experiencing God's presence through these people. To have this kind of faith is an amazing thing. The time was over and my journey was complete. My life went on as it had been, but this time it would be different. I had a new outlook on life and I swear that I will keep that as long as I live.

· I was in a land of foreign nature, a place I've never been before. There, to journey across the land, help as many people as possible with their own troubles and succeed in setting my soul free.

· In Lourdes, I was touched by the dedication and love of the many volunteers, as well as the tremendous faith of the Malades. During this time, I saw Christianity at its best - in practice.

· I think that the most important message I received on this pilgrimage was that property and status do not really mean anything. All that truly matters is showing love to others whether they speak another language, are old, sick, a classmate, or the person sitting next to you on a bus. I realized I can do this anywhere: in the baths of Lourdes, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or in my everyday routine.

· When I got home, I felt like I had a mission. It is a mission from God. That mission is to spread the Word. Go to Mass, teach those who don't believe and understand that Christ is king and shall return. Our God is always there and He is a very kind God. He forgives and helps those who help themselves. ... I now feel closer to my faith and have a deeper understanding of it. I helped people, and actually got my faith stronger out of it.

·Despite what happened on the trip, we are only now going to attempt the real challenge of our pilgrimage.... This challenge is to keep our ears open to God's call.

·The challenge now comes in bringing the joy of spirit back home to our family and friends. It's very easy to preach God's Word when you have two million young people at your side. God calls us young people to spread His Word in our own parishes and schools. No one said that would be an easy task, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, there is no need to be afraid.

Ellie Donohue called this "the trip that would forever change me". She writes:

As I wove my way along the crowds of people reciting the Hail Mary in all languages as they waited for the baths, I felt God watching me. As I lifted the worn blue apron over my head and tied its strings, I felt Jesus behind me. As I headed into the marble baths and led women through the icy water to the statue of Mary, I felt her caring for me. And as I dressed women who couldn't care for themselves and dipped women in stretchers who had experienced a pain that I couldn't imagine, I felt the Holy Spirit guiding me. Someone asked me upon my return from Lourdes if I had witnessed any miracles there. I told her that no, I did not see anyone cured on the outside; but that I had seen enough inner miracles to last a million lifetimes.

And Tim Stoelinga, who learned more than he ever had in any classroom as a student or high school teacher, concludes his reflections fervently, recalling that the group was told it would take some time to recover from this pilgrimage and readjust. "And so as my body begins to readjust to Central Daylight Time and a more familiar routine", he writes, "it is my prayer that the spirits of all those who embarked on this pilgrimage will never readjust".

We have all grown from our experiences, and I think it is our call to embrace the change that has been placed in our hearts, and let it change the very essence of who we are. I believe that is the strongest witness that a Christian pilgrim can offer to the world. And as the Holy Father tells us, the world needs to see it now more than ever.

"Duc in altum - Put out into the Deep"
The Holy Father has said a lot about the person of Christ, about contemplation of the face of Christ and about who He is, in leading up to the Great Jubilee. In The Church in America, he notes that Jesus is mysteriously present in the needy and the poor. "At the closing of the Second Vatican Council", he states, "Pope Paul VI recalled that 'on the face of every human being, especially when marked by tears and sufferings, we can and must see the face of Christ (cf. Mt 25:40), the Son of Man'".

That's what it took for these young people to really "see" Christ, and every one of them did, in the sick and suffering Malades at Lourdes, with lessons they could never really have learned in religion class, or in studying documents, or even listening to good preaching.

"We know that our concepts and our words are limited", the Holy Father writes in Novo Millenio Ineunte.

"Yes, Jesus is true God and true man! Like the Apostle Thomas, the Church is constantly invited by Christ to touch His wounds, to recognize, that is, the fullness of His humanity taken from Mary, given up to death, transfigured by the Resurrection".

He states that more than the many elements that made up the Jubilee celebration, the core of the great legacy it leaves us is the contemplation of the face of Christ.

"Christ considered in His historical features and in His mystery, Christ known through His manifold presence in the Church and in the world, and confessed as the meaning of history and the light of life's journey", he continues.

"Now we must look ahead, we must 'put out into the deep', trusting in Christ's words: Duc in altum! The experiences we have had should inspire in us new energy".

"Set the Whole World Ablaze"
In the welcoming ceremony of World Youth Day 2000, the Holy Father exhorted the youth to stay close to Christ after encountering Him so personally. "Dear young people, do not let the time that the Lord gives you go by as though everything happened by chance. Saint John has told us that everything has been made in Christ. Therefore, believe unshakably in Him. Spend time in prayer, letting the Spirit speak to your hearts. To pray means to give some of your time to Christ, to entrust yourselves to Him, to listen in silence to His Word, to make it echo in your hearts".

And in his homily for the closing of the event, Pope John Paul sent them off with this instruction:

"Dear friends, when you go back home, set the Eucharist at the center of your personal life and community life: love the Eucharist, adore the Eucharist and celebrate it, especially on Sundays, the Lord's Day. Live the Eucharist by testifying to God's love for every person. When you return home, do not grow lax. Reinforce and deepen your bond with the Christian communities to which you belong. From Rome, from the City of Peter and Paul, the Pope follows you with affection and, paraphrasing Saint Catherine of Siena's words, reminds you: 'If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!' (cf. Letter 368)".


Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a writer for Time magazine for 23 years, also hosted an Emmy winning television news show, and writes for a variety of publications. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two teenaged sons. She is a member of the editorial board of Voices.


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