On Thursday 23 July the young people of Liverpool Archdiocese embarked on a 27-hour coach journey to Lourdes, commissioned to witness and participate in ‘The Joy of Mission’ on our annual pilgrimage. Nine coaches departed from points all around the diocese for a week of service, prayer, and very little sleep in the French Pyrenean town.
Every year we ask our young people to open their minds to a particular theme in the build-up to our trip. The themes always assist our coach communities to grow in faith and friendship before, during and after our pilgrimage, and this year was no exception. I have been going to Lourdes for ten years now, and the 2015 pilgrimage theme is the one which has provoked the most thought. During our meetings beforehand, and even on the journey, there was a regular discussion between youth and staff alike: "What does this mean to you?"
The consistent responses among friends seemed to be centred round everyone being drawn to Lourdes by a common goal or purpose – or a tenuous link to an American spy film franchise. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that after last year's theme of 'The Joy of Conversion', we were now being handed our latest missions ... should we choose to accept them.
The first mission impossible was to get to know each other. Our young pilgrims had had the opportunity to chat during the regular preparation meetings, but what better way to forge friendships than the aforementioned and much fabled 27-hour coach journey? After plenty of laughs, a couple of games of football at service stations and enduring the traditional coach screening of Grease, we arrived in Lourdes a little tired but full of the Spirit and ready to embark on our 2015 week of service.
The week began with our Youth Pilgrimage Welcome Mass where Father Simon Gore took the chance to provide every coach with a mission box and a collection of specially assigned tasks for us to undertake in Lourdes. The youth pilgrims had to get their task card signed off by a staff member and tweet photographic evidence for use in the Departure Mass to @AnimateYouth. Missions included posting "Deus Caritas Est – God is Love" on social media and taking photos with each coach leader, Archbishop Malcolm and another religious (a #SisterSelfie, in some cases).
Other tasks included doing something to assist a staff member, wearing a 'Free hugs' badge around town, and presenting someone on the pilgrimage with a glow-in-the-dark Mary figurine. It was a great way to get people interacting across the coaches and certainly one which everyone embraced. The Welcome Mass concluded with a rousing rendition of 'We Are The Free' by Matt Redman, including a spontaneous 'Pilgrimage Poznan' (for non-football fans, imagine a crowd of people with backs to turned the spectacle and arms around their neighbours’ shoulders, all bobbing up and down).
Our primary mission throughout Lourdes 2015 was to display the selfless acts of service that the Liverpool youth have long embraced. This involved the regular duties of assisting the sick pilgrims in getting to Mass and travelling around the town, spending time with them in cafes and shopping, and providing entertainment in the St Frai Hospital where many of them stay. Our Over-18 and St Frai team volunteers were tasked with additional, more personal duties in the hospital itself, assisting pilgrims with their daily routines, at meal times and, of course, taking opportunities to build bonds over a cup of tea.
Some of our more experienced young pilgrims were also given the opportunity to work as volunteers in the baths, where they helped pilgrims from around the world to bathe in the waters. Many of those requiring assistance at the baths would be suffering from illnesses or needing help with mobility, and our youth were on hand to offer caring, sensitive service at a time of particular vulnerability. As they discovered, language is no barrier when we have been brought together through faith and service.
Throughout the week we took part in many memorable services with the pilgrims, including the International Mass celebrated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Blessed Sacrament Procession. These experiences, shared with our pilgrim friends from around the world, afforded our young people another chance to see how we are all called together by our common faith.
The spirit of community among the ‘yellows’ was particularly evident when we participated in the Torchlight Procession at dusk in the domain. Youth, Hospitalité and independent pilgrims from Liverpool all processed together, alongside other diocesan groups – including pilgrims from Brentwood, Westminster, Metz – and the Order of Malta. Beginning under the arches by the Grotto, we walked around the domain while praying the Rosary together, with the area illuminated only by candlelight.
It is always a fantastic way to conclude our time in Lourdes, with plenty of time to think about our experiences shared as a group and alongside the sick pilgrims. One member of our Coach 7 team, Richard Partner, will have voiced the feelings of many when he described the "unique unity" he felt as a young Liverpool pilgrim.
"I worked with the visually impaired and this was one of the most inspirational and heart-warming experiences of my life," he said. "John, the pilgrim I had the fortune of caring for, helped make my week one of enjoyment with the wide, beaming smile that greeted every person that he met. There was a unique unity created by all members of the Liverpool Pilgrimage which was a pleasure to experience and helped me to appreciate the joy of mission."
Richard, 17, spoke also of the importance of the 'Joy of Mission' theme. "It helped me to understand that as a young generation we can be strong together in faith and that there is no reason to be shy," he said. "As Pope Francis said, ‘Holiness doesn't mean doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things with love and faith’ and our next mission is to continue expressing our faith in what we do in our ordinary lives."
The week ended with a celebration service for the Liverpool Youth Pilgrimage, and an opportunity to see the photographs of all of the successful missions completed. ‘The Joy of Mission’ was evident to all, as we were shown a series of selfies, images of faith in action and examples of why it is always good to be nice to the staff team! We listened to a couple of inspiring faith stories, a fantastic sign language presentation from Coach 5 and a drama from the Animate team, all of which provoked thought about the time we had collectively shared.
Our time in Lourdes finished as it had started, with typically enthusiastic singing and a ‘Pilgrimage Poznan’. Thanks to all of the fantastic young people, staff team members, chaplains and all who took part or helped us prepare for a wonderful week of mission, prayer and friendship. See you in 2016.
Michael Meadows was a staff team member on the Sefton coach to Lourdes