This July saw seven young parishioners, under the guidance of Fr. Dennis, join the annual Westminster pilgrimage to Lourdes, site of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On arrival at the airport, all seven of us were handed our tabards; we were now officially Red Caps. Our work had soon begun with the pushing of wheelchairs and the carrying of luggage, however, we knew to expect more. As always, the outward journey was great fun, with plenty of excitement and laughter from the offset - any anxieties soon ceased. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our hotel, and were eating our first meal together.

The following day was one to remember. We had already been introduced to our chaplain, team leaders, and team members, but it was now time to meet Les Malades, those whom we would be caring for. With half of us stationed at the nearby hospital, St. Frai, and the other half working one-to-one with Les Malades, we had the fortune of meeting, helping, and caring for so many wonderful people.

On first sight, I was surprised by the sheer number of Les Malades, but what astounded me even more, was their enviable spirit and enthusiasm. With many wheelchair bound, many unable to feed or dress themselves, many with communication difficulties, it could easily have been an emotionally negative week. Yet few places on earth could be more inspirationally positive than Lourdes. Inspiration came from Les Malades themselves. They were so incredibly cheerful, brave, and kind. Despite pains and ills, they never complained. Their characters and personalities meant that from beginning to end, conversation didn't stop flowing! The sick and disabled pilgrims shared memories of the previous experiences at Lourdes, many of whom had been regular pilgrims for over ten years. It was a humbling, learning experience, and although we were there to help Les Malades, in many ways they helped us more.

Bonding not only occurred between Les Malades and their Red Caps, but also between the Red Caps themselves. With a record number of Red Caps on this years' pilgrimage, an organised social calendar was promised from Day 1. The hectic social calendar surpassed all expectations, and ensured that us Red Caps were deliriously tired by the end of the week! With the particular night to remember being Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor receiving a standing ovation following a hugely successful sing-along. After such evening delights, our heads gladly met our pillows. With much less than the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, we still jumped out of bed, washed, ate, and were ready for a whole new day.

With each new day, came a different experience. The holiness and spirituality of such sacred ground captured you, each and every day. There are too many highlights to mention, but for me, the Candlelight procession was spectacular. Thousands collected by the Grotto, in wheelchairs or beds, and slowly moved with their candles, four abreast, to the Basilica singing the 'Ave Maria' of Lourdes. In the midst of such a powerful experience, you would see people pausing for thought; pilgrims from all over the world were united in one procession.

As a first-time Red Cap (and pilgrim), I felt very special, and almost immediately fell under the charm of Lourdes. The highest praise that can be given to the experience is the promise that I shall return again.

Ciara Courtney

Our Lourdes Experience