It might seem strange to read a blog about anything military on the Justice and Peace website, but we must remember that the members of the Armed Forces are our brothers and sisters, in need of pastoral care and deserving of our love and respect as men and women created in the image and likeness of God .
Last month saw the 59th annual pilgrimage take place for the various Armed Forces throughout the world. The Pilgrimage, begun in 1958 as an act of reconciliation between French and German troops after WWII, is now an act of international fraternity and celebration, fostering camaraderie between soldiers, sailors and air personnel of the nations that take part. This year 41 countries participated, with around 20,000 pilgrims attending.
The theme was “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant us Peace), echoing Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace 2017. Lourdes is not a place to cure, but it is a place to heal. With this in mind it is fitting that each year the IMP takes place here, bringing together Catholics, non Catholic Christians and those of no faith at all. As Pope Francis says, “Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation.’ And In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that you have greater peace in your hearts.”
Although ours is very much like any other pilgrimage in Lourdes, being military we march wherever we go - and that was no easy feat for me! On the first full day, we marched to St Joseph’s Chapel for a Penitential Service where we had a chance to go to confession or just have a chat with one of the padres. The chaplains then led their various groups around Lourdes, “in the footsteps of St Bernadette”.
Holy Mass was celebrated and after the compulsory photos in front of the Basilica we had the International Opening ceremony. All the pilgrims from the 41 different countries gathered and prayed for peace. In the evening, there was an opportunity to attend the blessing of the sick.
On the Saturday, we celebrated an early Mass at the Grotto, joining with the American, Canadian, Irish and Norwegian contingents. This was a truly moving experience, to stand below the spot where our Blessed Mother appeared to St Bernadette.
After Mass and breakfast, the pilgrims went with their chaplains to pray the Stations of the Cross. In the afternoon, a group attended the ceremony at the War Memorial in the centre of the town of Lourdes. This is one of the more serious occasions of the pilgrimage where those who died as a result of war are remembered and peace is prayed for.
After a display by the band of Rifles and the Irish Defence Force band, we took part in the torchlight procession. I’ve taken part many times, so I know the atmosphere and drama, but watching the faces of the young naval recruits I processed with was a blessing. Being part of such a gathering of people praying and singing hymns is indeed a moment of Grace.
Our final full day in Lourdes was marked with Holy Mass, followed by the blessing of candles and a prayer service with the lighting of the candles. We again reflected on Lourdes’ message of peace and offered prayers for our families, friends and those who were injured or gave their lives in pursuit of freedom and peace.
Each evening of the pilgrimage nearly everyone descends on the pubs and cafes to socialise with pilgrims from around the world. Anything from badges to full uniforms are swapped! This helps to break down barriers and fosters peace and good will, something which Our Lord and His Blessed Mother most certainly would wish for.