"You are God's work of art" a Scottish Bishop told one of the biggest annual children's pilgrimages to Lourdes last Thursday as a great cheer went around the cavernous underground basilica near the famous grotto. Bishop Joseph Toal of Argyll and the Isles was picking up on the theme from Ephesians 2:10 at the 2012 Mass of HCPT - The Pilgrimage Trust, a joyful occasion, bringing together 4,300 pilgrims, including more than one and a half thousand children with special needs. Being the main celebrant at the Mass was "an emotional experience and a great privilege" Bishop Toal said afterwards.
The Mass saw a procession of one archbishop and six bishops, more than 200 priests dressed in distinctive group scarves and hats, and as many banners, indicating the broad geographical reach of the Trust. Popular church music by modern composers such as Mike Anderson and Jo Boyce was sung with great enthusiasm, swaying and clapping. Archbishop George Stack of Cardiff and Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton also officiated in a service, organised by the Scottish Region of the HCPT. Most of pilgrims were from UK and Ireland, but some were from as far afield as Eastern Europe, the West Indies and the United States. The Mass was followed by thousands back home as it was broadcast on the internet. Sitting outside and chatting with groups leaving at the end Archbishop Stack described the Mass as "wonderful". He found it "remarkable" how the Trust Mass "holds together young and old, alongside youngsters with a range of disabilities". He had enjoyed spending time with Welsh groups, particularly one from Swansea.
For 57 years, the week after Easter each year has seen HCPT groups of about 20-30 appear to take over the French pilgrimage town. In colourful sweat shirts and arrays of badges they could be seen this year holding group prayers near the grotto, walking in the candlelit procession with luminous headgear, and singing hymns with actions outside every pavement café. It is the biggest children's pilgrimage to Lourdes from the UK, and attracts thousands of young helpers who are very visibly committed to ensuring their even younger charges have a wonderful faith experience.
In fact, "youth are a beneficiary group in their own right and we are an anti-lapsing agent," according to Phil Sparke, the dynamic new Chief Executive of HCPT - The Pilgrimage Trust. Around 450 participants were in youth contingents this year, assisting the 158 groups from UK and 46 groups from Ireland in looking after the children. Sixty percent of helpers were under 30 years of age, many of them sixth formers from such places as the Salesian College at Farnborough and St Benedict's School in Ealing, West London. Yet, the main focus of the pilgrimage is the children. "We come on this pilgrimage holiday at the invitation of Our Lady," says Phil Sparke, "and we want to make children smile and find fun in faith". A former regional chair of the Armed Forces Regional Group, he has been coming to Lourdes with the HCPT since the early 1990s, and intends to nurture the growth of even more groups.
During the week, a new window was inaugurated in the chapel of HCPT-owned Hosanna House, realising a dream by Fr Michael Byrne, Founder Chaplain of the Trust. It captures the resurrection scene, where Mary Magdalene encounters the risen and glorified Christ in the garden. It is intended to challenge pilgrims to Lourdes to carry away from Lourdes a message for the world: an Easter message of new life, love, hope and joy.
For more information see: http://www.hcpt.org.uk