From August 5 through the 19 of 2015, thirteen Kellenberg seniors embarked on the first Marianist Mission of Mercy to Lourdes, France. After making a pilgrimage stop in Bordeaux, home of Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, the Kellenberg missionaries spent a week working full time at the holy sites in Lourdes, caring for and ministering to the malades (French for “the sick”). Each day brought with it new work and many challenges. Throughout the two-week trip, the missionaries grew, and many underwent transformations of the heart and the soul while serving the needs of people whom they had never met. While our group’s experiences were all in common, the variety of graces that made an impact on each missionary were distinct and unique for each one. Each missionary was asked to write a brief reflection of the most meaningful moment of the mission. We hope you enjoy reading about what it was like to serve in this holy place.
One of the most powerful experiences for me at Lourdes was being able to work in the baths. People travel from all of the world to Lourdes, seeking healing whether it be physical or spiritual. I met people from all over the world, speaking all different languages. Many of the people who came into the baths did not speak English, and neither did some of the workers. I found that faith has no words. Being able to witness the incredible faith and devotion to Mary of the many people that we assisted was life changing. My devotion to Mary began when I attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school in Malverne. It has strengthened throughout my time at Kellenberg thanks to the witness of Marianist brothers. They have shown me that the best way to Christ is through Mary. However, my time at Lourdes helped me to strengthen my devotion to Mary in a whole new way. Mary shows us Jesus in a whole new light. As Fulton Sheen said, Jesus is the Sun and Mary is the moon that reflects his radiance. I now see for myself that Mary points us to Jesus through her goodness and faith. It was amazing to see people put all their faith and trust in Mary and allowing her to intercede for them with her Son. One of the most amazing sights was people standing and praying before the statue of Mary after we had lowered them into the bath. We would give them a few moments of silence to pray. Some stayed for a few seconds, while others stayed for a few minutes. One man even started crying while praying. Lourdes helped with the realize the power of the Blessed Mother. I always assumed Lourdes was a place where people who were severely ill or disabled came seeking physical healing. However, I witnessed people leaving Lourdes as different people. I am also different.
My most memorable memory was the candle lit rosary prayer service precession. Julie, Zoe, Charlie and I decided to be a part of it the last night we were in France. It was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. It was on the feast day of the Assumption of Mary. Thousands and thousands of people took part in this. What amazed me the most was how so many people from different ages and different backgrounds all came together as one to do the same thing. That thing was to praise and honor Jesus and His holy mother Mary. During this procession, we would all raise our candles when the “Ave Maria” was sung. It was so fortunate for us because whenever we seemed to walk into or walk by a precession, the “Salve Regina” began. It was like it was meant to begin whenever we walked by. This procession made me realize that I am never alone when it comes to my faith. Many people are standing by me and praying to our God for love, forgiveness, and help. It also made me realize that I need to be thankful for everything that I have. There were malads who took part in this event. They couldn’t walk on their one and had to be assisted by another adult or by a younger adult. They pray every day hoping that one day they will be better. That is why we need to be thankful of everything we have.
My experience overall on the Lourdes Mission Trip was absolutely incredible. It was one of the most moving, life-changing experiences, and went beyond any of my expectations. Each day in Lourdes offered a new spiritual adventure filled with new people to impact my life. My most memorable experience, if I had to pick one, is the baths or “les piscines”. Two of our days of mission work required that we work outside the baths with the hundreds of people waiting on line. I worked with women and children who were waiting on line. Disabled children as well as infants were to be moved to the front of the line so that they could get into the baths sooner. Witnessing some young children paralyzed, disabled, and in other conditions was truly eye-opening, especially when they came in with big smiles on their faces. It really helped me personally to put life into perspective. I was told by one of the other volunteers that one of the young girls I witnessed who had a mental disorder had come in to the bath everyday for the last nine days. The immense faith shown by so many people coming to the baths had a huge impact on me and my own faith. After the second day of work outside the baths, I was given the opportunity to take a bath myself. It was an experience that I will never forget and words cannot even do it justice. It was an opportunity to offer up everything in me to God and completely surrender myself to him. I came out of the bath absolutely speechless and with chills. I have never felt so at peace mentally and spiritually. I am so blessed and thankful for having had the chance to have this experience at Lourdes.
Many times in my life I can say that I have seen some beautiful things, for example the sun setting over the bay at where my family vacations out east in Greenport, New York every year, or while at my schools retreat house during the winter at 2:00 AM looking out with snow falling slowly down everywhere you look. Nothing compared to the first night being in Lourdes, walking through the gates of the Basilica, it was raining and there was a rosary procession going on. Hearing all the men, women, and children singing the rosary in their own languages and then all together singing the Salve Regina together when we were about to get to the Grotto was a moving experience. The unity of faith was inspiring to want to grow in my own faith, it was nothing I’ve ever experienced. Before we went to the Grotto I had an idea of the people I wanted to pray for which was roughly 30 people that I thought of all before this moment on the trip during the plane, train, metro rides, and walking through the cities. When we finally got there, all the noise around me seemed to vanish. We stood in front of the statue of our Blessed Virgin Mary and I thought of everyone I wanted to pray for, it seemed that every person that I have ever met seemed to rush through my mind. The image of the Virgin Mary from that night is still there when I close my eyes. It is something can never be truly captured by pictures, the pure beauty. That night felt like a clean slate, something that most of us strive for, that every mistake I have ever made was truly forgiven. I felt as though there was a reason that I was brought to Lourdes even though before the trip I was never very excited to go. Even though the trip started days before we arrived at Lourdes, that night was the start of the trip. When we began to walk back, I washed my face and drank some of the water for the first time and there was a new light shown to me that night how the rest of the trip would be.
Honestly when we first got to Lourdes I was nervous, it hit me that I was across the Atlantic far from home with people that I barely knew. I began to doubt myself, I started belittling my ways of exercising my faith by comparing it to others, all the questions I had ever had about my faith seemed to echo in the back of my mind, and all my doubts rose to the surface. Then we went to the Grotto. As we approached all my doubts, questions, and past struggles were screaming out in my mind. But as my hand touched the smooth rock, something told me to let go. To remember that feeling that someone is always with me, that same feeling before all the struggles and doubts. And I listened. I put my guard down. I let my mind wander and my soul search. Then I realized that thousands of hands had carefully shaped the smooth rock that I was following, and that’s what I felt. Connected. I felt as if I could never possibly feel alone again. That feeling that I had, the same one I had been reminded about at the entrance of the Grotto, the feeling that someone is always with me, and the feeling that God is always walking along the same path with me had returned. After I had experienced these feelings at the Grotto I felt heard, answered, loved and unafraid. This first night paved the way for the rest of our mission. Everyone at Lourdes, the sick, weak, strong, and healthy were all connected. We are all just human beings. Although we couldn’t comprehend each other verbally we understood that we are all loved and listened to and that we are never alone in any struggles. Whether they are emotional, physical, or spiritual.
I was nervous going into this trip because I tended to get somewhat nervous or shy when I was around the elderly or sick. I almost felt unworthy of being selected because of this doubt. However, when we arrived in Lourdes it was like something completely washed me of this fear. One job we had was bringing people off of trains and a lot of them were in wheel chairs because of how disabled they were, however they were possibly the happiest people I have ever met. They were so excited to just arrive in this amazing place. A lot of them couldn’t even talk or form words (on top of the fact that they spoke a different language) but somehow we all were able to communicate and understand each other because we were all there for the same reason, healing. I didn’t feel nervous at all around these people. I would smile at all of them not because that was my job, but because I was genuinely happy to see their beautiful faces and how excited they were to get to the grotto and pray. This was quite an ironic moment because when I arrived on that very same platform a couple days before, all I could think about was getting to the hotel and shower. It really put everything in perspective in that I was so lucky and fortunate to be so healthy yet quick to complain, when all these sick people wanted to do was pray. We did this job a couple days after already doing other jobs in Lourdes, so I was able to see the journey people went through after right before the baths and after, or before and entering the grotto and leaving. However, the beginning of their journey was arriving and I really loved to see it. They had no idea what they were going to experience, and the excitement was just flowing out of their bodies. It was as if they had been waiting their whole life for this arrival, and I feel honored that I was able to be a part of their journey.
Out of all the unforgettable experiences that this mission trip to Lourdes has given me, my most spiritual moment was taking a bath in the water of Lourdes. Millions of people come to Lourdes in order to take these baths that have caused 69 confirmed miraculous cures and tens of thousands of other miracles. Even if you are looking for a physical healing and don’t get it, no matter what you are healed spiritually and your faith is strengthened more than you can imagine; that’s how I felt when I experienced it. All of the girls were stationed to work outside of the baths that day and about an hour before the baths closed they said that we could stop work and receive our own bath. While I waited I prayed silently not really knowing what to expect. They brought me into a common changing room where they wrapped a sheet around me and then lead me into a room with a large in ground bath and a beautiful statue of Mary. The two volunteers put an already wet towel around me and I walked into the bath and said my prayers silently. The water was freezing cold and they dunked me in just far enough that my head didn’t go under. I walked out of the bath to get dressed and the most amazing thing was that I was completely dry and it was as if it never happened. Nora and I were the first two outside and we both agreed that it would be nice to go kneel by the statue of Mary to wait and pray and think about what an amazing thing that we just went through. I don’t know how long we kneeled there for but after a few moments I turned around and all of the girls were behind me doing the same exact thing– kneeling in front of the Blessed Virgin, praying, and crying. We didn’t have to talk about it in order to know that we all felt the same thing. The feelings that went through all of us, the feelings that went through me, were so indescribable. It was a moment where nothing and everything made sense and my faith was the only thing that mattered.
My most memorable experience from the Lourdes mission trip took place during 3:00 a.m. visit to the grotto on the last night of our time in Lourdes. Following the walk through the grotto, I made my way to light a candle which, through its glowing conflagration, would be a silent acknowledgement of my intentions. The rows of candle created a different environment from that of the grotto, though only fifty feet away. After lighting my candle and saying some prayers, I was overwhelmed with emotion. The amount of candles that continued burning into the early morning was awe-inspiring for each candle was lit with different intentions. The magnitude of the number of candles astonished me and reminded me that all of these candles have corresponding pilgrims who each have their own struggles and yet we all sought peace in the same place. On the walkway of candles, I could her whispered prayers in many different languages and each candle could have come from a pilgrim with a new tongue, but all of the candles were lit so that someone’s prayers might rise up to the heavens and be answered. The grotto at this early hour takes on a different air than the grotto during the day. At 3:00 a.m. I could truly understand that each of us can offer our own prayers to God separately, but we burn brighter when we come together.
The most memorable and most spiritual moment of the service mission to Lourdes for me was when I was able to go into the baths in Lourdes. I remember being extremely apprehensive to the idea of going into the baths, because I wasn’t completely sure of how everything was done and I had heard that you had to go in completely naked. However, I realized that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I would have to be completely crazy to give up this chance over a little discomfort. I was relieved when the volunteers working in the baths explained that I was going to be completely covered throughout the whole process. The volunteers working in the baths made sure you were completely covered while getting undressed and as you waited for your turn in the baths you always had a towel around you. It was a very comfortable and humbling experience. I also remember how kind all the volunteers were and how they helped me get into the right mindset before my turn for the bath. When I entered through the curtain that divided the waiting area and the bath I remember an overwhelming calm come over me. The main volunteer asked me to look at the statue of Mary and think of the intentions I wished to pray for and to say any prayers I wanted to before I went into the bath. After I said my prayers they lowered me into the bath and I will never forget the shock that went through my body when I hit the freezing cold water. However, the water also felt refreshing and I felt completely light; as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I left the bath with a huge smile on my face. When I exited the bath, I saw this large statue of Mary and I knelt in front of it and began saying a decade of the Rosary. As I prayed the decade I began to cry, which was completely unexpected because I am not an emotional person, and I have never been so moved by an aspect of my faith. Going into the baths allowed me to open myself up and truly feel all of the emotions that I had and it allowed me to fully appreciate the service mission on a whole.
My most spiritual moment from our mission trip came during our Mass at the underground basilica. This moment came during the sign of peace. After making the sign of peace with my fellow missionaries, another Kellenberg missionary and I went over to the malades to exchange signs of peace. When we shook hands with these people who were literally living in constant suffering, my whole life was put into perspective. In that instant, I realized how blessed I was and how different my life could have been if I were to have had some of the ailments which I saw. Yet, I thought about how despite their illnesses, these sick people still found God. I knew at that moment that if these people could have such immense spiritual fortitude, so could I. When we witnessed the way the malades‘ eyes lit up when we shook their hands, it reassured me that we were there for a reason. It was almost as if we made them feel human again, and that they were no different than us despite their terminal illnesses. If that was the sole impact I had made on this trip, it would’ve all been worth it. This gift I gave to them was minuscule compared to the gift I received of knowing that we may have made a difference in the lives of those few people. This giving of our gifts to these people who may never of had such blessings was the culmination of our mission trip.
As I prepared for my trip to France, everyone asked if I was excited. And I truly was! But I also began to worry tremendously that it wasn’t the right thing for me. What if I wasn’t strong enough to help others in need? What if someone else deserved to go more than me? What if this wasn’t what God wanted for me?
Our first day in Lourdes was a rainy one. We traveled on a train for hours and hours to reach Lourdes, the “main course” of our trip. The plat du jour, if you will. We walked the remainder of our journey through the town towards our hotel in the pouring rain. “Offer it up,” Mrs. Harnisch suggested, which encouraged us all to keep our chins up and remember what we were there for. When I first saw the town, I was disappointed. So much commercialization and retail threw my initial expectations of a quaint little village out the window. I couldn’t understand why God would have wanted the integrity of Bernadette’s town to be reduced by these vendors. My internal struggle continued until late that night, after dinner, when we made our first visit (of many) to the grotto. It was a shock coming from the hustle and bustle of the town of Lourdes to this quiet and prayerful stillness. As we entered, an international rosary just happened to be concluding with the Salve Regina. We all sang along, and smiled at God’s funny way of telling us that we were in the right place. As we continued our walk, I was looking down, typical for someone who trips as much as me. I glanced up, and I was suddenly in front of the grotto. It was breathtaking. A light shone on the Blessed Virgin, and the midst of the rainy night illuminated her and the entire grotto, making everything shine. Standing before Mary, I prayed the rosary with her, just as Bernadette did over 150 years ago. In that serene moment, a feeling of immense peace washed over me. I knew that this exact instant was imprinted in God’s plan for me. I could feel the Blessed Mother whispering to me that there is no need to worry, because He has got it covered.
“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
My most memorable moment at Lourdes was probably during my free time with Charlie on Wednesday. I came out of a very spiritual adoration. It was very quiet and I just had some quality time with God in the hustle and bustle of the work week. I spent about a half an hour in there and then left with Charlie. We were walking down the stairs and were about to leave but we heard music and singing from another section of the building so we went and checked it out. We looked in and saw a huge group of people who were on a pilgrimage of their own. They were singing and dancing and we knew they were giving glory and praise to God– although we didn’t know what they were saying, you just knew. It was so amazing to see this live, upbeat type of party going on in the middle of the whole solemnity of the Grotto and the Basilica. The best part of this all was that there were malades, or the sick people, in the middle of it all. We could see the smiles and the energy in all the sick and it immediately made me smile, just seeing so many people in one place with all this energy towards God was so amazing. Charlie looked at me and I looked at him while we were watching and we both had faces of awe and mouthed the words to each other, “This is amazing.” As I saw the pilgrims going towards the malades to dance with them, it almost brought tears to my eyes. It was so inspiring to see people who were here for their own selves and their own pilgrimage, take a couple hours to give their time and service and make the malades’ day. I am not exaggerating at all, I had the chills the whole time and I almost just wanted to get in there and start dancing with them because it was so inspiring and so emotional that I could feel it from just watching outside. This may not have been the most spiritually involved thing I experienced on this trip, but it left a lasting memory that I will never forget.
My most memorable experience from Lourdes actually took place the night we arrived. The night we got there we decided to go to the grotto, the spot where Mary appeared to Bernadette. When we arrived we got on line to walk along the rock wall and feel it. The second I put my hand on the rock I got a weird tingling sensation throughout my body. I immediately began to pray the Rosary. As I got to the end of the wall I took my hand off the wall and in that instant of letting go, I got goose bumps. I then took some time to take in and observe the grotto. In this little time that I spent in prayer, my life changed. As I stared up at the statue of Mary I would see it shaking. I squinted to make sure I was hallucinating, but the statue continued to shake. I asked my friends if they saw the statue shaking too and they all replied, “No.” As I continued to stare and pray I suddenly got the chills again. Something came over me and all of a sudden I heard a voice. It was my dad. He wrapped me up in a giant hug and said, “Andrew, I love you.” Call me crazy or say I am hallucinating but I swear, I heard my dad clearly and felt him wrap me up. It was the greatest moment of my life. I was so overcome by emotion that I went mute the rest of the night. I couldn’t find the words to speak to anyone. Later that night I found myself alone and in tears just praying. For years I have wondered if my dad was proud of me and who I was becoming. People always assured me that he was but I was wondered you know? Yet in one moment, my years of wondering and questioning were answered.