Some 250 members of the British Armed Forces have recently taken part in an International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.
The International Military Pilgrimage started in 1958 when the French Armed Forces invited the German military to join them in Lourdes as a gesture of post-war reconciliation.
Since then the pilgrimage has opened up and in 2011 some 37 countries were represented among the 20,000 military pilgrims.
The invitation is sent to the British Chief of the Defence Staff by his French counterpart, and it is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Forces who arranges the British participation. The British participants came from bases in the UK, Germany and Cyprus.
Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary that appeared to a young girl called Bernadette over 150 years ago. Each year it attracts about six million pilgrims.
Rifleman Matt Fisher of 3rd Battalion The Rifles was one of those who attended this year. He said:
Lourdes 2011 came onto my radar a few weeks ago when Father Alex, my unit padre, suggested I come along with my fiancée. She is Catholic and I knew she would love it and I had always been a bit intrigued by the place and wanted to see it.
When we arrived I was struck by the amount of different nationalities there. There were all sorts of different uniforms and it was a great chance to see a bit of the culture and traditions of other countries’ armed forces.
Being an injured soldier myself, it was good to meet up with a few other injured soldiers from other regiments, and the support and appreciation from people from all over was quite moving. There was a real sense of caring and warmth the whole weekend.
I was surprised by the sheer amount of people at Lourdes. The opening and closing ceremony in the underground church gave a sense of the amount, but it was too vast to really see everybody. The torchlight procession showed the scale of the pilgrimage and was quite a spectacle.
I will take away from Lourdes a great feeling of appreciation from the rest of the world and a true amazement for the size and numbers involved in a pilgrimage of this kind. The love shared by all was genuine and wonderful throughout the weekend.
One of the pilgrims was asked to describe what they do on the pilgrimage:
We march, we pray, we eat and drink.
All the national contingents march to the venues, and this year the Band of the Royal Corps of Signals accompanied the British group. Some of the prayer events were international gatherings, some English-language groups, and some just British.
There has always been a close bond between the British and Irish forces in Lourdes, and the successful state visit by Her Majesty The Queen to Ireland added even more to that.
A practised-hand at Lourdes was Senior Aircraftman Adam Yates from RAF Marham. He said:
This was my third International Military Pilgrimage. I originally came on the pilgrimage after hearing good reviews from others that had taken part. On my first visit I wasn’t a particularly religious person, so was apprehensive about what would be involved.
Although the trip is a major religious event, and the religious aspects are central to the occasion, it isn’t overpowering, so people who aren’t as religious as others don’t get overwhelmed.
The most moving part of my visit this year was going into the Grotto in the early hours of the morning when it was almost empty. I got a very real feel and understanding of why Lourdes is such an important place for so many people.
It can’t be put into words or explained, but everyone should have the chance to experience it.
During the long weekend, the various groups celebrated mass together, and in smaller groups walked over a stony hillside to trace the Stations of the Cross, a prayer reflection on Christ’s journey to his death.
This year many cadets from Sandhurst followed an old pilgrim custom and walked the Stations of the Cross in bare feet.
A torchlight procession saw all the thousands of Lourdes pilgrims process by candlelight around the open spaces. Many military pilgrims also immersed themselves in the baths of freezing Lourdes water which came up from the earth during the apparitions that appeared to Bernadette.
Senior Aircraftman Yates picked up on that, and said:
The most important thing I walk away with every year is a sense of peace and calm after the experience in the baths and the Grotto. Also a great sense of pride from representing the RAF and the whole British military at such a high-profile event.
Alongside the serving British military, the Joint Service Hosanna House Group takes elderly, sick or injured veterans to Lourdes to coincide with the International Military Pilgrimage, so the young servicemen and women can meet them and enjoy their war stories when they meet up for some of the events.
It is the sense of comradeship which strikes almost everyone who takes part. A first-time participant was Petty Officer Steve Frewer from the destroyer HMS Gloucester, who said:
As a first-time pilgrim who didn’t know anybody else attending, I was slightly nervous about what to expect. Instantly I was made to feel like one of the group by people who had been many times before.
By the time we arrived at the hotel it was clear that new friendships would be formed here. It was fantastic to see that whether Navy, Army, or Air Force, everybody got along like brothers and sisters, just as God had intended.
Although the trip is a major religious event, and the religious aspects are central to the occasion, it isn’t overpowering, so people who aren’t as religious as others don’t get overwhelmed. Senior Aircraftman Adam Yates
This continued as we began to meet the foreign nations, there was no hostility or bad feelings, just thousands of military personnel from all different backgrounds coinciding as one, almost like a big school reunion.
Being a Catholic I had always wanted to visit Lourdes. I can’t really describe in words just how it felt to not only be celebrating mass at this place, but to be representing my country in front of the foreign nations, but it exceeded any preconceptions that I had.
It was a truly inspiring place and quite moving to see what the power of faith can achieve.
What really struck me was the fact that there were people stood next to me who were equally moved by the experience, people who less than two hours before had told me that they were not religious in any way.
In true military style we always found time to squeeze in a beer, socialise, and celebrate with the different nations.
These different kinds of celebrations went on well into the night and often ended in parts of uniform being swapped as life-long memories of the friendships formed.
It is safe to say that I have met friends for life on this trip. But like me, and hundreds before me, you will find that once is just not enough.
The pilgrimage is largely supported by individual contributions and non-public funds. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, similar bodies and Regimental Associations, as well as the three Service Catholic Trusts, all contribute.