Last May, Father Michael Romano and I were privileged to accompany a group of sick people to the sanctuary of Our Blessed Mother in Lourdes, France. We served as chaplains for the Knights and Dames of Malta who annually sponsor a pilgrimage of the sick to Lourdes. For both of us that week at Lourdes had a powerful impact. It was an experience of God’s very active grace present in our lives through witnessing the care and comfort extended to the sick by the Knights and Dames; participating in the evening candlelight Rosary procession and listening to the crescendoing of the sung Aves as the faithful wound their way around the Shrine; taking the bath in the healing waters of Lourdes; observing the devotion of the pilgrims; celebrating the Sacrament of the Sick; and offering Mass at the different chapels. There is something tangible, visible and available at Lourdes that leads the pilgrim to Christ. We wanted our seminarians to have such an experience as part of their formation for priesthood. The necessary arrangements were made and Father Romano, accompanied by Father Adam Cichoski, a young, recently ordained priest and contemporary of the seminarians, went to Lourdes in the company of 14 of our seminarians.
I’ve asked Father Romano to share some of what they experienced:
After receiving some necessary formation, our group of 16 was put right to work. Each day, we were assigned to at least three periods of service (morning, afternoon and evening). By the second day, this group of 16 young American male volunteers were known by all the other volunteers as we stood out a little bit! Our types of service ranged from physical labor to the seemingly mundane, but each service had a purpose and we embraced what we were asked to do. We were guaranteed to assist with the Eucharistic Procession or Rosary Procession each day (some days both!) where we would be asked to direct the flow of traffic, keep the plaza clear, assist with parking the sick in their wheelchairs in an orderly fashion and other such tasks. Our leaders reminded us of the importance of our demeanor in always being friendly and welcoming, remembering to smile. Even though we may not speak the same language, a warm smile is universal. The more physically demanding aspects of our service came when we were assigned to work in the baths, at the train station or the airport. The needs in these works included lifting people out of their wheelchairs into their seat on the train or plane, assisting men on stretchers to prepare for and take the bath, and helping others in the baths to ensure a spiritually enriching, yet safe, experience. I believe our seminarians gained much from our days of volunteering: a growing comfort in ministering to the sick and suffering; seeing the priesthood as a life of service and pouring oneself out for others; the fulfillment in going to bed exhausted after a full day; that “little things” and the “little ones” matter. I found the days in Lourdes to be a shot in the arm for me and was edified to hear some of the seminarians speak of their desire to return to Lourdes someday soon to engage in another week of service.
I received the following letter which speaks so well to the caliber of our seminarians and the seriousness with which they accomplished their service in Lourdes. Their reflections have been published in previous editions of the Catholic Star Herald, which I hope you have read. Many have commented on the spiritual maturity of those reflections, a credit to the formation they are receiving in the seminary.
Dear Bishop Dennis,
I am a member of the Hospitalite Notre Dame de Lourdes and whilst I was recently in Lourdes I was asked to be the “team leader” and trainer for the group of Seminarians and two priests from your diocese who had come to spend a week in service. I acted as their “chef d’equipe” for the duration of their stay in Lourdes.
I am writing to let you know that all the members of this team showed themselves to be exemplary “stagiers” who undertook every service with enthusiasm and generosity of heart. They were a hard working team who undertook service at all the major events in Lourdes and they also worked hard welcoming and helping pilgrims at the train stations and at the airport. Some of this work is physically demanding, and other services such as working at the baths is often emotionally intense.
Your seminarians were a delight to spend time with and the whole team made a very positive impact on all those they worked with and served throughout the week. I am certain that their experience of service in Lourdes will have a big impact on them and their ongoing formation. I think they also learnt much from the good example of service and care given by Michael and Adam.
I fully understand that it might not be possible for these seminarians and priests to come to Lourdes to work with the Hospitalite Notre Dame de Lourdes on a regular or annual basis (because of the costs and distances involved). However, I want to emphasize that I and the other members of the hospitalite would be thrilled to welcome them back at some point in the future. I think your decision to send these seminarians to Lourdes for a week of service is a particularly wise one and I am certain that it will result in many blessings for the life of your diocese. Indeed it would be excellent if one day we are able to welcome a pilgrimage to Lourdes from Camden Diocese. Perhaps now these potential priests for your diocese will be the ones to do this at some point in the future.
Please convey to Michael, Adam and all the seminarians who came to Lourdes my heartfelt gratitude for their very good service throughout the week. It was a pleasure to spend time with them and be their team leader. I wish them well in their ongoing formation and discernment.
Dr. Sean Whittle – HNDL
Visiting Research Fellow at Heythrop College University of London
Visiting Research Fellow at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham
I’m sure after reading the above letter you too share my pride in these young men. They rose to the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of Lourdes and grew in their Christian vocation. When you meet them, encourage them in their discernment of a vocation to the priesthood and continue to pray that young men may come forward from our parishes and schools to consider that perhaps the Lord is calling them to be priests of Jesus Christ for service to the Diocese of Camden.
Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, D.D.
Bishop of Camden