By Colonel Matt Wills, Assistant Commander, 38 (Irish) Brigade and the Northern Ireland Garrison.
I had been to Lourdes before. Both times, some 35 years ago as an inquisitive student taking advantage of the opportunities of Inter Rail. I was bowled over by my first visit. ‘Jumbulances’ from all over Europe disgorging the sick and disabled at the Shrine, made a lasting impression. Sadly, the second visit brought another vision – one of sordid commercialisation and beggar gangs preying on the Faithful. I undertook never to return. But now, fast approaching what I thought might be the ‘last chance saloon’, I actually made an effort to re-prioritise my life and attend the International Military Pilgrimage (IMP). I wondered if anything had changed at Lourdes, and which version of the ‘truth’ might still be a reality.
Being absolved of all responsibilities other than being in the right place at the right time, and trying to keep in step; sharing dining tables with whoever was in front of me in the queue, regardless of rank or cap badge; trading militaria with foreign troops from all over Europe; indulging in more than a solitary beer with our friends from the other side of the invisible Border; reliving childhood memories of regular Mass and much loved hymns, surrounded by All Ranks, all connected by a common interest. For once, perhaps, to be in a majority in a church of my own Christian denomination, on duty and in uniform – all rather unsettling, but in a good way.
I found that my two visions of Lourdes had not changed at all. The Faithful and the sick were all around me and the beggars were out in full force as some 17,000 military pilgrims descended on the small town in the Pyrenees; but my years and experience enabled me to laugh at the dreadful shops full of tat and I even indulged in the purchase of plastic Mary bottles to fill with holy water to annoy my colleagues at home!
I completely lost track of time within a ‘full on’ itinerary, which only a military Chaplaincy could have contrived. Yet, there was still time for discussion about things that are usually left unsaid. As if personnel, perhaps uncomfortable to talk about their faiths, whatever they might be, in normal circumstances, now found themselves in a safe place where they could be open and free about their beliefs with people who only a few hours previously, had been complete strangers.
And of course, the silence of the Grotto at the dead of night; with only the illuminated statues and
the stars for company, following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims, enticed by the simple story of
a peasant girl and her visions of Mary, brought an opportunity to focus on the important things in life and an attempt to listen to that inner voice, so often silenced by the clutter of the every day. How odd, to approach the end of a military career and only now realize that the real truth was there all the time – I just needed to make the effort to see it.
Everyone should take advantage of the IMP – our spiritual health is just as important as the physical and the mental; and we should learn to look after it.
Originally published in the Army Roman Catholic Newsletter, Issue 21. To receive a copy of the newsletter, email ArmyRCPAA21@gmail.com.