The Order of Malta recently took almost 300 people from the western United States, including three from Utah, to Lourdes, France on an annual healing pilgrimage.
Lourdes is one of the best known Marian apparition sites. It is a small village in southern France where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirous 18 times in 1858.
A frail, illiterate 14-year-old, Bernadette was mystified by the appearances. In the final appearance, the Virgin Mother identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, a dogma that had only recently been proclaimed. Mary told Bernadette to dig in the grotto where she had been gathering firewood. A spring appeared. Mary gave instructions for all to wash their hands and face and drink the water. Many unexplainable healings have taken place after washing and drinking the spring water as Mary directed.
After canonical investigation, the apparitions were declared worthy of belief. This means that they are recognized by the Church, but do not belong to the deposit of faith.
The annual Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes is about healing, both physical and spiritual.
The group included 56 people with serious health issues, affectionately known as malades, the French term for ill person, who were sponsored by the Order of Malta as guests. The malades were supported by 54 family/caregivers, 130 members of the Order of Malta, 56 volunteers and eight chaplains.
Myself and my wife, Heather Bonn, of St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful, and Tracy Gonsalves of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Park City were the pilgrims from Utah. Tracy is a Dame in the Order of Malta. I have a lung tumor and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
The first dinner was an opportunity to get to know some of our fellow pilgrims. A pilgrimage was a new experience for me, and I had been encouraged not to come with expectations. The morning of our first full day included opening Mass in the lower chapel of the Basilica of the Holy Rosary. I was struck by a tile mosaic of Mary in the dome above the altar. Mary, portrayed as a very young woman, was smiling, her hands outstretched. This was the most welcoming image of Mary I have ever seen. This image was so different from solemn renderings we typically see, and showed how art and architecture can be inspirational.
I noticed many similarities between the Basilica of the Holy Rosary and our Cathedral of the Madeleine, including the mysteries of the rosary on the walls in mosaics or stained glass. Much of the first full day I felt like a typical tourist, taking in new sights, sounds and a foreign culture that included washing of the feet and visiting the baths at the grotto.
The second day I changed from being a tourist to a pilgrim. We received the Anointing of the Sick in the chapel across the river from the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette. I had received this sacrament twice since my diagnosis of leukemia (in addition to the lung tumor I have been carrying). With the anointing I was overcome with an incredible sense of peace. The peace was to a depth that I had not felt in decades. I suddenly knew things would work out regardless of the course of my health or physical condition.
The evening of our second day touched me even more. We attended a candlelight procession and rosary around the grounds of the Domain of Lourdes. The rosary was prayed in six or seven different languages. At the end of each decade of the rosary, the procession sang “Immaculate Mary.” As we sang the chorus, we lifted our candles, symbolizing lifting our intention to Our Lady in heaven. When raising my candle at the end of the second decade, I was overcome with a sense of love from Mary and God. I have always felt blessed, but never felt loved like that. I have been blessed with wonderful parents, wife, five children, a Catholic education, a nice home, good job and reasonable economic fruits, but this degree of love completely eclipsed my worldly blessings.
The pilgrimage continued with unique events, including Mass at a 12th-century monastery in St. Savin, high in the Pyrenees. We had daily Mass, lauds and vespers.
I had tried praying the Liturgy of the Hours before, but they never took traction. On the pilgrimage, this was optional, but I am glad we carved out time to pray the Liturgy of the Hours morning and evening as a community. It touched my soul.
We had two extraordinary events during our pilgrimage. The first was getting to hear a presentation from Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis, the medical director of Lourdes. He discussed the recognition of the apparitions and the many cures that have taken place after washing and drinking the water from the spring that Bernadette dug at Our Lady’s direction.
A second unique blessing was twice having Mass with Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi. The first time was with approximately 10,000 other pilgrims, 13 bishops and 120 priests. The next day, Cardinal Tomasi celebrated Mass with just our team of about 30 people. This Mass included Cardinal Tomasi conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation on one of our teen malades.
Touring with a group of sick people may sound as if it would be depressing, but the opposite was true. My companions were some of the most joyful people I have been around. The people, the prayers and the reflections were more important than the place. We go on a pilgrimage not to stay there in a special place, but to be inspired and to return to our daily life with a new perspective. Anxiety over my cancers vanished during the pilgrimage and have not returned. I know we all get called home at some point, and knowing God loves me is infinitely more important than the cancers. I want to share that love.
The Order of Malta is a Catholic lay religious order that was formed in 1048 as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem to care for pilgrims. The Order has evolved over the years, but they still follow the mission of upholding human dignity and caring for people in need. The Order runs medical clinics, cares for refugees, and provides disaster relief, as well as offering pilgrimages to special places.
For information about the Order of Malta Pilgrimage to Lourdes and the application process, contact Tracy Gonsalves at firstname.lastname@example.org.