As the months led up to August this year, my excitement and eager expectation for heading out of the country grew more and more intense. I was thrilled to be leaving everything behind to pilgrimage in France and Spain for two whole weeks! I felt more ready than ever to go and see what was in store for me there.
August 10 – our group of 24 departed Chicago airport for Atlanta, then flew to Barcelona and tried to sleep on the eight hour and 17 minute flight there. Spain is 7 hours ahead of central U.S. time, so it was morning when we got there.
We weren’t the only ones headed to World Youth Day on that flight. In the Atlanta airport, we came across our first sight of fellow young people headed to World Youth Day. They were a group of jovenos y jovenas from Tijuana, Mexico. We recognized them as pilgrims, because they all had matching t-shirts, and there were several holy-looking priests among them. That was to be a foreshadowing of what was coming: the event that really did bring the world together.
As soon as we landed in Barcelona, we got on a bus and left Barcelona. We met our tour guide, Neosa, from Portugal, who gave us interesting lectures about the history, economy, weather, landscape, etc. as we made our way through the Pyrenees Mountain region to Lourdes, France.
Lourdes was a great place to start out our spiritual pilgrimage. Being the home of St. Bernadette and the apparition site of Our Lady of Lourdes, it is a place steeped in prayer and miracles. I would realize later that every true spiritual pilgrimage begins with prayer, continues with prayer, endures with prayer, celebrates with prayer and concludes peacefully with prayer. At the Grotto where our Blessed Mother appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette, I ran my hand over the rock and prayed for my intentions. I prayed for you all - friends, families and benefactors - and for my personal intentions, which I carried with me on pilgrimage. I placed them there at the Grotto.
Twice we got to witness (and participate) in the daily candlelight procession in Lourdes. As we joined the hundreds or thousands of pilgrims that were gathered there, some on their way to WYD and others just visiting Lourdes, I felt so much peace and love for Mother Mary and the Church. There was so much faith and devotion in the people, who had traveled far and wide to come to this place.
My own miracle at Lourdes happened as I stood by the river, looking on towards the Grotto. It was Friday, August 12, in the morning. Our group was facing the direction of the Grotto, observing the international Mass for WYD pilgrims that was taking place in the Grotto. So many people passed by us from different countries the world over, and I thought, this would be a great place to catch my friends Mary-Kate and her brother Peter if they happened to walk this way.
I had been praying prior to the trip and that day to St. Anthony (patron saint of lost things) that he would help me and Mary-Kate to find each other in Lourdes or somewhere during the WYD trip. We hadn’t seen each other for over two years, since we live so far apart in the States. However, I knew she was in Lourdes with a group from her diocese, but I had no contact information for her.
As I waited by the Grotto, wishing to see my friend...there, lo and behold, suddenly appeared Peter, walking down the street. Mary-Kate was right behind him! I almost forgot my bag in my haste to run to her, so overcome was I by emotion! We hugged. It was such a joyful moment. I knew then that God had heard my other prayers, too! Not only did the meet up with Mary-Kate actually happen, God gave it to us at the perfect time. They had nowhere to be, so they joined my group in hiking and praying the Stations of the Cross. We even had time to eat lunch together at an outdoor café before going our separate ways. The timing was incredible.
The second most memorable experience for me was washing in the baths. Our Lady asked Bernadette to drink the water and wash in it for sinners. I stopped at the water taps in the wall to drink the water and wash my face, but the baths were truly a powerful experience. In line to the baths, three friendly ladies from Dublin made friends with me and took delight in reassuring me - since it was my first time - that everything would be wonderful. They were so happy for me; they were like angels, encouraging me and leading me with love. I felt no fear, only overwhelming emotion and a sense of complete abandonment and trust in God. Again, I prayed for my particular intentions and left them there, metaphorically, in the healing waters of Lourdes.
Other highlights in France: tasting delicious French cuisine, strolling through the enchanting city streets, listening to the romantic French language spoken by natives, and speaking the only words I knew in French, “Bonjour!” or “Bonsoir!”
Random facts. There are tons of roundabouts in France. Neo, our tour guide, told us that they change the direction of the traffic one-ways in France every 15 days. That means, they have to switch which direction the street signs are pointing every 15 days. They do it so the businesses get equal shoppers.
On August 13, we left Lourdes. We made our way back to Spain, where we'd spend the next 11 days of our pilgrimage.