I hope you are all well and have enjoyed/are still enjoying an Easter break.
As you can see from the title of this blog, the post certainly has the potential to be a long one. After all, it covers a couple of weeks and then an entire week of Lourdes experiences. I might spread the Lourdes out over a couple of blogs to avoid readers getting eye strain from the excessive word count! But first, there is a term to finish.
After the excitement of Pope Francis’ election, there was certainly an air of excitement around the house for a few days, if not a week afterwards. Each day, morning prayer included an intention to the new Pope, encouraging him in his new role as head of the Church and successor to Peter. Conversations at retreats and around our dining room table were enthusiastic. There was certainly admiration for Pope Francis’ simplicity of faith, his determination to reach the minorities and provide “a Church on the streets”. This made me think even more about our role. Whether on outreach or leading in-house retreats, we do form a part of the Church on the streets. How can the new Pope inspire us? We were soon to find out, with his first address to young people enthusing about their role in the Church and creating excitement about World Youth Day. This, perhaps, had a profound effect on Aish, who went from disappointment that the Pope visiting Rio wouldn’t be Benedict, to excitement at seeing Pope Francis and experiencing his mission for the Church first hand. I have to admit, I have taken a lot of personal interest in these developments, and even have The Pope App on my iPad!
Retreats before Easter were excellent once again. I had an amazing opportunity the other week – the chance to lead different prayer sessions during a weekend. In addition to sharing the social justice/CAFOD session with Leighton, I led morning prayer and also quiet time. This was something I had wanted to lead for a while, and so I was delighted to finally have the chance. Many of my prayers that weekend included music, and so I felt as though the majority of my Christian Music collection was over in Walsingham House for a couple of days. I was truly astounded when the catechists wrote that my morning prayer was one of the highlights of the weekend and that the young people also engaged with the stories. What an amazing reaction to have. The other half of the team were in Gateshead for the CYMFED conference, and I have to confess to being a bit gutted when they all returned to the house with CAFOD hoodies!
The next day, we were up early to visit St John Payne in Chelmsford for outreach with Year 12. About 100 young people filled the hall for the retreat, I experienced the biggest retreat so far this year. It was great to find out what the school does and also to find some photos of Leighton with long hair! I was also a minister at Mass, but had to drink most of the wine myself when only 2 students received from my chalice. This was definitely a challenge! The last weekend before Easter saw Holy Cross in Harlow and St Edward’s in Romford visit the House, accompanied by Mr Ollie Fuller our honorary team member. My group were brilliant fun, and I could definitely see a couple of potential team members amongst the boys. I had the Harlow girls in my group, and was surprised to find out they all knew Elaine and her family. We also had an interesting discussion about Pets Corner and other Harlow attractions, something I didn’t think would ever happen on retreat! In the last week of term, we had two more great day retreats, a Year 9 and a Year 6 group. My first Year 6 retreat was great fun, as I hadn’t worked with that age group for a while. However, I definitely need to master the game “Grand National” for the next one!
Aside from the retreats, I’ve had a busy time. On 21st March, Olivia and I headed into London for her long awaited birthday surprise. I cracked a few days early and told her about our visit to the V&A (where we spent quite a while in the jewellery and fashion sections, before playing a game of “Guess the Price” in the gift shop. I’m not entirely sure Idriss approved of this!) We have matching rings as souvenirs, and I also managed to spot the name of one of her favourite jewellery designers.I did, however, manage to keep the afternoon tea a secret until we were on the train. Olivia’s reaction was brilliant and made me smile a lot! She had no idea either, so thanks team for keeping it a secret. The hotel was absolutely amazing, the tea was wonderful, but we were so full afterwards it was difficult to walk the 3 minutes to the tube.
On 26th, parents and friends came together again to celebrate the end of term with a meal. Mum provided her wonderful fruit salad, and other team members did a brilliant job of the other courses. Around the table, Aiden provided some entertainment for all, and there was also real surprise that the end of term 2 had come so quickly. Especially for those of us heading to Lourdes on Easter Sunday (I bet you wondered when I was going to mention it, didn’t you?) I had mixed emotions as I packed for the week away – despite seeing many photos and hearing many accounts, I was unsure how I imagined Lourdes. My main concern though, as we left Thurrock services, was whether I would manage to sleep at all on the train between Calais and Lourdes. I needn’t have worried. After a drive to Dover and ferry crossing to Calais, our first service of the pilgrimage commenced. Our wonderful Group 709 (famous TBG) donned our fluorescent clothing and began to transfer 500 bags from group coaches to the train. The 19 of us were assisted by the brilliant Salesian Old Boys (Group 707) and soon had an effective system going. Despite the late arrival of the train, we completed our task successfully in plenty of time and were soon aboard the train, where my next surprise awaited. I’m not sure what I expected, but definitely not the prospect of a bed for the night, complete with pillow and sleeping bag! We were definitely being treated well. Exhaustion truly set in, and I found myself drifting in and out of sleep quite early. In the end, despite waking every now and then to change position, I had a pretty good night. Thankfully, I had a net in between me and the end of the bed, and I was very relieved that others knew how to put these up and take these down, otherwise I might still be there now! Aish described this as my “soft play centre” and I can see what she meant – if I’d had everything I needed, I could have created my very own ball pit on the train.
The next morning, we stopped at Toulouse. Our next duty was to speak to group leaders about numbers in their group, so that lunches could be provided. Although quite cold, I enjoyed standing and talking to the group leaders on the platform, getting an idea of their plans for the week. An entertaining April Fool’s joke, believed by Fr James and Matt (and possibly a few more of us too if we were honest), kept spirits high, and after a couple more hours, we were in Lourdes. 1:45pm on Monday 1st April. Here, we unloaded the train, watched the groups rushing around in their colours before boarding coaches to their hotels. We arrived at our Hotel, St Contard, about 2pm and spent some time unpacking before heading out for a tour. This was my first experience of Lourdes and, as predicted by the team who visited last Easter, the rain soon joined our tour. I was amazed at the array of shops on the way to the Domaine, and excitement grew. My first sight was the Basilica aptly named the Disney castle, as it does look similar from a distance. I look round, expecting to see the Grotto and Underground Basilica in a triangle. Instead, the Underground Basilica was off to one side, the Crown Virgin statue was in the middle and the Grotto was nowhere in sight. Intrigued, I followed the others. Round the corner, near candles and between the basilica and the baths, there it was. The beautiful Grotto. Wow. We walked round the Grotto, which wasn’t as deep as I had imagined, but still amazing. We walked over the bridge and took in these sacred sights, before a group Mass in the Kolbe chapel. I was blown away by my first sight of Lourdes, and wasn’t sure how to express it to the others. I can now understand why it is so difficult to describe the Lourdes experience to those who have never been, although I can assure you I’ve tried my best.
On our way back to the hotel, we also paid a visit to the HCPT shop and stopped at the playbase, where we would be working later in the week. The first day wasn’t over yet! After dinner, we headed out to marshal for the first time that week in our HCPT tabbards. The concert was a sing-along to Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I remembered a lot of the songs from a Year 5 performance, so really enjoyed singing along with the groups. We definitely attracted attention though, as we were dressed as Grannies ready for our social evening. Holly, Dominique, Sarah, Lucy and I were the inflatable walking stick gang, whilst Nick’s costume attracted the most attention. It was pretty brilliant. I also discovered I looked quite good in my grey wig, although this isn’t a look I want to test out any time soon. After heading to the Jeanne d’Arc, TBG’s regular Lourdes hangout, I headed back to the hotel to prepare for the next day, my first full day of service in Lourdes.
Which is where I will leave this blog for now. So, if you want to find out how I got on working in the baths, discover what HCPT Masses at Lourdes are really like and why Michael should never be allowed to sing into a microphone, don’t miss the next post, coming soon!
Thanks for reading!