Bearing the cross: Lourdes and beyond

by Carrol Thorn, C.P.

Following World War II, the Catholic bishops of France and Germany came together in a series of uneasy meetings to plan cooperative strategies, ease tension and soothe lingering hatreds. Part of their efforts resulted in a "Peace pilgrimage" to Lourdes, Mary's shrine in southwest France. Former military enemies, including occupying forces' personnel, were invited to a yearly gathering in the late spring. 1998 was the 40th anniversary of the pilgrimage.

In my seven years in Germany as military priest-chaplain, I joined other Catholic chaplains in planning the Lourdes Pilgrimage for our troops and their family members. The pilgrimage of May 1993 was the final one for me. As senior Catholic chaplain, Nuremberg sector, I led that segment of the pilgrimage.

Our bus caravan arrived at Lourdes, in France, on a Friday afternoon. We located our lodgings, changed into military uniform and after a light French supper walked to the Shrine area. The first formal event of the pilgrimage is customarily a religious rock concert created by specially invited musical groups and held in Saint Pius X Basilica, a cavernous, concrete underground church with space for thousands. Original Christian compositions are presented in a prayerful, joyful, contest of excellence.

Saturday morning, brilliantly clear, was free until the opening Mass. It was a time for the thousands of young people to try their language skills, trade uniform badges and patches, and socialize. The outdoor liturgy, concelebrated by the attending chaplains, took place in and around the Grotto of Mary's apparitions on the banks of the Gave De Pau River. The main celebrant in 1993, I recall, was the British Chief of Naval Chaplains, an admiral and a bishop, no less! Following the three-hour Mass, with its thousands of communicants, we returned to the hotel area for lunch, a short break, and then back to the Shrine area for the "Procession of the Sick."

How difficult it was to hold back tears at this magnificent demonstration of courage and faith. Though pilgrims like us crowded the Shrine, the sick and disabled, their volunteer caregivers, family members and friends, were the honored guests. Blind, disabled, agonizingly unwell, they processed toward the Altar of Exposition for the solemn Eucharistic blessing. The Lourdes hymn was gloriously taken up seemingly in every language, a magnificent caroling of hope and praise: "Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria," the refrain echoing from surrounding hillsides as the stretchers and gurneys move slowly toward the Altar.

Each year, among the military pilgrims in procession are French Foreign Legionaries, mercenaries without nationality but evidently not without faith. They presented their elderly and infirm comrades to the Eucharistic Lord, in the hope of a healing, a blessing. Fit, tanned, tattooed, in desert uniform, the Legionnaires were truly splendid!

A struggle in my heart

Wedding feast at CanaI recall a struggle in my heart that afternoon. Should I request healing for a "sore knee" of mine in the presence of this tremendous suffering? "Do whatever He tells you," I recalled Jesus' Mother instructing the uncomprehending waiters at the wedding feast at Cana in John's Gospel. With some misgiving I prayed to be healed.

The Rosary procession began as darkness gathered. Marchers carried tall white "Lourdes" candles. The swaying, surging mass of pilgrims, more than a mile long and converging from many directions, prayed decade after decade of the Rosary, as it streams down the hillsides towards the Shrine. The effect in the darkness was a visionary thing, a hypnotic plea through Mary to her Divine Son, for an end to all war. My knee became more stiff and swollen, aggravated by the slow-paced shuffling along uneven, pot-holed country roads.

The final day, Sunday, centered around the liturgy in the Basilica, filled to capacity and spilling uniformed pilgrims out onto the grassy surroundings. Communion lasted nearly and hour. Lunch followed, then a too-brief opportunity for the healing baths. Some bathed, most could not.

Twenty-six hours later, groggy and rumpled, having slept in our seats, we roll into Darby Kaserne, Nuremberg, Germany, and our Peace Pilgrimage accomplished. We had been pilgrims together, now we have returned to the harsh military world, preparing for war.

By summer's end, my final months and weeks of active duty were sifting out. My knee remained stiff, swollen and painful. The remains of the Lourdes procession candle lay, half-burned and half-forgotten, on a windowsill in my quarters on the grounds of the Nuremberg military hospital.

Advent approached and I decided during those days to burn what remained of that candle while I prayed my much-abbreviated priestly daily devotions. Years before, the work of day-to-day chaplaincy, my own senior supervisory obligations, multiple weekend masses celebrated at scattered priestless unit outposts, constant preaching and preparation, command briefings, classes, counseling and budgetary planning, had mistakenly become my "prayer" life. I recall the Lourdes candle consuming itself as I prayed the biblical Psalms, more regularly now than I had for a very long time. The warm, golden candle light comforted me as I prayed, hardly ever missing a segment of the prescribed prayers and feeling gently drawn almost without effort to those peace-filled moments of each day.

Rediscovering the gift

One evening as I completed night prayer, a wave of joy washed over me. I was filled with a peaceful calm. Mary's grace-filled invitation to her Son's presence was drawing me. The patient, coaxing of the Mother of the Lord, my Mother, tenderly at work in me brought sudden tears, a great releasing rush of tears! I had my Lourdes miracle, after all! "Do whatever He tells you," she reminded me. He was telling me to pray, to return to my prayer -- the bedrock of my priesthood.

Reluctantly, on March 1, 1994, I retired and left the Army. In the fall of that year, I returned to Europe for a semester of Scripture and theology at Louvain, in Belgium. During those cold, wet Northern European days and quiet evenings at the ancient university, I wondered what could be in store for me. " Do whatever He tells you." Mary's words haunted me.

One morning in February 1995, just after the community Mass at St. Michael's in Union City, New Jersey, my community since leaving active duty, the Chief of Army Chaplains personnel officer phoned. Would I consider a civilian contract position at the all-service maximum-security prison, the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas? "The ministry would be strenuous," he cautioned, "the stress level high at times." The Chaplain Personnel Branch had scanned my active-duty medical records. They were aware of my damaged knee, my age. There could be no guarantee; if I could do the work, the contract was mine.

In the years that have passed since I came to the United States Disciplinary Barracks, I constantly walk through wings and work areas, climbing endless stairs. My inmate "parishioners" and co-workers, noting that I no longer limp as I once did, remind me of the benefits of strenuous exercise. Having exercised vigorously all my military life, I am inclined to believe them. But in my heart I hear the singing, "Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria." In my mind's eye I see the fiery river of golden candle flames descending, flowing down the mountainsides to Mary's Shrine at Lourdes. I hear her whispered admonition: "Do whatever he tells you... Do whatever he tells you."

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