Pilgrimage redefines understanding of miracles

The 150th Jubilee of the first apparition in Lourdes, France was attended by 45,000 pilgrims.

By Jill Ortiz and Bob Bergtholdt

As our plane gently nestled into the landing strip at Lourdes, we found ourselves surrounded by emerald green mountains, a fairytale village and smiling faces. Our earlier worries and fears lightened as we were greeted by the noble Knights and Dames of Malta on our journey of hope and faith.

We were soon immersed in the great traditions of the church: The washing of the feet, the anointing of the sick, a candlelight procession and inspirational masses in historically rich gilded cathedrals.

The physical beauty of Lourdes is unparalleled from the golden Basilica to the sanctity of the Grotto, where the Blessed Mother appeared to 14-year-old (St.) Bernadette Soubirous on February 11, 1858, and reportedly 17 more times.

Lourdes is a small market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, famous for the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The 150th Jubilee of the first apparition occurred on Feb. 11, 2008 with an outdoor mass attended by some 45,000 pilgrims.

One divine experience to another
It soon became evident that the spirit of Lourdes was reflected on the faces of the malades and our companions, as we were transported from one divine experience to another.

Malades is an affectionate term for those with maladies, and the Order of Malta selects 50 malades who are taken to Lourdes as guests of the order. The spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage is centered on the malades and their companions.

The baths were especially powerful, as we were immersed in water like no other–neither cold nor wet–an utterly different kind of immersion altogether. As we gently entered the baths, the gift of praying for others soon became a moment of healing for ourselves..

Each and every face exited the baths with a new and refreshed expression. Some overwhelmed with emotion, while others exuded great peace and tranquility, as if the hand of God had touched them.

On the third day, 25,000 pilgrims assembled for a candlelight procession. Golden light illuminated the loving faces of the faithful as we quietly walked to the Basilica to become a sea of light gathered in his name. Soft voices in deep conversation with newly found friends filled the air, and as our candles drew dim our inner light grew with every inspirational moment.

On the fifth day we gathered for the International Mass at the Subterranean Basilica. This majestic Mass was filled with ceremonial grace and reverence at its highest, as the thousands of singing voices in four different languages became one. The grandeur of this Mass was especially amazing; as we witnessed more than 300 clergy dispense Holy Communion for all in a matter of minutes. The sense of spiritual harmony united us all as we found ourselves, once again, immersed in God’s grace.

Friendships deepened

As our pilgrimage drew to a close, the friendships and conversations deepened with each event. We saw a transformation in each of us that redefined our understanding of miracles. And the children among us were especially beautiful, as they quietly watched and participated in each event without revealing the suffering that had brought them to Lourdes. As our priests bestowed the cleansing grace of reconciliation, we shared our every word, our every thought, be it joyous or sorrowful, as if we were with a trusted friend of old. Each and every day we learned from our priests as they, too, experienced transformation in this divine gathering of souls seeking God’s grace.

We prayed as one, we learned as one and we cared for each other whether we were Malades, Priests, Knights, Dames or Companions. This was truly a glimpse of humanity at its best, a glimpse of heaven on earth, a glimpse of our true nature in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable.

We returned to our homes and loved ones with a sense of duty to share the magnificence and sanctity of this pilgrimage to Lourdes, and God’s love was never more evident to us.

Jill Ortiz is the Lourdes Pilgrimage Director for the Western Association, Order of Malta, and lives in Trabuco Canyon, CA. Bob Bergtholdt was a malade with the 2011 Lourdes Pilgrimage and lives in Foster City, CA.


Organizing a trip of this magnitude

Planning a pilgrimage is a fine balance of organization of the journey and consideration of the spiritual journey for those going. All the details, both the small and large, are important in providing comfort, security and “setting the stage.” You’re not just concerned with getting them there, but also the experience they will have in Lourdes.

I’ve been on the Lourdes pilgrimage 13 times prior to being responsible for planning this one. There are hundreds of details to cover to make it all look easy. The selection process of the malades involves many people and is probably one-half of the organization time of the trip.

My hope was that through organization the anxiety of those who have never traveled outside the U.S. would be eased. Being available for questions, plus having other avenues for them to get answers, such as a website, helped answer any questions that they had.

I made a book with all the details and paperwork I might need in Lourdes. I remember getting to a point when I closed the book and thought, “I am as prepared as I can be.” At that point, I was able to completely relax.

Once in Lourdes, my focus became more of an overseer. As one priest said, “pick well and get out of their way.” Careful consideration was given to the selection of each leader. While my job was to give them the tools they needed, I did not micromanage how they used the tools. Many times over the pilgrimage, I would be very grateful for the contribution of others. Under a head captain, “Ted” McAniff, KM, our captains who each managed one of our seven teams, were terrific and handled the day-to-day assignment of duties of those on their team.

Our Head Brancardier, David Churton, KM, and his team of brancardiers who overlooked the logistics for each of our venues, were a godsend. Under our pilgrimage medical director, Dan Field, KM, MD and his team of doctors and nurses, we all stayed healthy. Our principal chaplain, Msgr. Steven Otellini,  made each Mass and blessing meaningful and run smoothly. With each of us carrying part of the load, it was lighter on all of us.

Staying calm, being available was my greatest contribution while in Lourdes. What I didn’t expect, was that I too would be on pilgrimage. I thought I would be so busy trying to make sure everything ran smoothly that I would not stop and enjoy it.

I was able to get to know a few of the malades. Many of them go to Lourdes with various expectations, both physical and spiritual. What they find is acceptance, whether by others who accept them as “Joe or Jane,” who happen to be sick, or acceptance of their health challenge they have been given.

For many, they get so involved with their disease, that they lose sight of who they are. Watching their journey, how touched they are, and the unexpected blessings they received will be a memory I will remember with both smiles and tears. Seeing other malades or their companions come back with a renewed strength to face their challenges is what makes all the time planning of the pilgrimage meaningful.

Then there are those who have physical changes that the doctors can’t explain. Everyone comes back from Lourdes changed — malades, companions and those who go to help. Our Lady of Lourdes touches each of us. Bottom line, we are there on a pilgrimage. For each of us, the pilgrimage will have a different meaning.  

–Jill Ortiz


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