Anybody scanning social media in the days after the Lourdes pilgrimage ended will have seen hashtags such as #PLD (Post-Lourdes Depression) and #TakeMeBack. It left me wondering why our young people might feel 'depressed' at not being away on pilgrimage, with the early starts and late nights and hard work in the hot sun.
If we could put our finger on one specific reason, maybe we would have churches brimming with exultant youth, but it may well be more a combination of things that come together in perfect harmony for one week in the year. After all, to try to pigeonhole the Lourdes experience might be to restrict the free movement of the Holy Spirit in that week; one person's wish to be 'taken back' might have a different motivation than another's.
Lourdes is a place of peace and tranquillity (at least once you get away from the tat shops and into the domain). The young people on the pilgrimage can take a step away from the stresses of their lives to think about what is most important to them. When they take part in the Blessed Sacrament procession, they are reminded beforehand by their coach chaplains that they are walking with the Lord just as the disciples did 2,000 years ago. Just as those disciples came to the Lord with questions about their place in the world, so too can our young pilgrims take their questions to the same Lord. Similarly with the torchlight procession, they have the chance to pray the rosary and walk with uplifted candles to ask the Lord to enlighten their lives.
Lourdes is also about the service the youth offer to our assisted pilgrims. In this Holy Year of Mercy, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy were never far from the minds of our youth pilgrims. Service has always been a vital component of the pilgrimage but this year allowed us to reflect more thoughtfully on why we act in merciful ways – to add spiritual and theological ballast to the work that goes on. It is said that we live in a world that looks increasingly to the individual over the needs of society. As someone once said, "There is no such thing as society", and for young people growing up in this world, it can be difficult to acquire a broader vision of what can be done for our fellow humans. Yet in Lourdes they need not look far, as they are asked to play a part in ensuring mercy is shown to those around them. It might be no surprise, then, that young people might want to be 'taken back' to Lourdes, where they can act in service of others.
Finally, it would be a grave mistake to downplay the social aspect of Lourdes. The social side of being away from home with strangers has always been a vital component of pilgrimage – just read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. There is something different about social time in Lourdes. Our young people are not judged for what they wear or how they look. Lourdes is a shared community. You can end up singing in a bar with a person you have not met before. The judgement of the world is, for a time, ignored. You are free to chat to people you might not normally talk to, to make friends without thinking about what Facebook will say.
In short, the #PLD and #TakeMeBack sentiments are no surprise. Perhaps we can summarise the reasons with three S's: spirituality, service, social. The challenge now is how to harness these in the everyday lives we all return to. Over to you ...
What our youth pilgrims said
Two members of Coach Three from St Helens gave their verdict on the 2016 pilgrimage:
At first, the thought of spending 27 hours on a coach with complete strangers was quite scary. However, waking up with these people and seeing their early-morning smiles on the journey down had me deciding rather quickly that Coach 3 wasn't a group of strangers but one huge welcoming and extraordinary family of young people and staff which I was now a part of. As this was my first time in Lourdes you can understand that I was surprised when I was chosen to be on VIP (visually impaired pilgrim) duty. I was privileged to take care of the same lady all week, and being the one she relied on when she needed help was the icing on the cake for me. As our connection strengthened I realised that I couldn't have asked for a better person to care for and share an ice cream with. Yes, the early-morning wake-ups weren't to my liking and I would have preferred it if my legs didn't ache after a day of pushing wheelchairs but the relationships I made both with my fellow pilgrim and the members of Coach 3 and the other coaches made up for it. Honestly, there is no place like Lourdes.
Throughout the week I was helping a visually impaired pilgrim (VIP) with my friend James. He was a young man called John and we had such a fantastic time with him. We went to all the Masses and processions – our favourite was the torchlight, especially as John couldn't stop laughing at my great singing! Throughout the week with my coach we had a great laugh but we were also reflective and took time to think of family, friends and our relationship with God. It's times like this I miss in my usually hectic everyday life and I'm sure I'll return next year with Coach 3 for my third Lourdes pilgrimage.