CHARLIE PERKINS reflects on a very special Lourdes experience…

I thought I knew what to expect when I was going to Lourdes, as I had been before – but I was mistaken. What an experience I had!

After such a rocky two years for everyone, I was apprehensive about what to expect. I knew the pilgrimage was a lot smaller than in previous years and that the supported pilgrims were not staying in the Accueil this year but in the same hotel as I was. This led to an altogether new experience.

From arriving at the airport at 3.45am to a check-in full of “strangers”, I instantly felt part of the family, every one of them with their own personal reasons for travelling on the pilgrimage but united together by our faith.

We had that instant connection, that common ground, a bond that is rarely felt anywhere – and we were still in Teesside!
I instantly felt reassured that this was going to be a week to remember. From that point, I was straight to work, and we didn’t stop!

The pilgrimage had been shortened to five days, as this was the first since Covid, but we managed to pack what we would have done in seven days into the five.

Arriving in Lourdes was a whole mix of emotions. We were all happy to be there and elated that we had a week together, but I have never seen Lourdes so deserted and quiet.
The normally jam-packed streets and churches were sparsely scattered with people, the noise of many different languages as we walked through the crowds was barely a whisper, shops and hotels were closed and there was a sense of how much Covid has affected this wonderful place and the loss it has suffered. But this silence also brought a calm serenity, a sense of peace, a belonging. We had arrived.

I was given the amazing opportunity of helping at many services throughout the week but especially at the Grotto. What a way to be able to express your faith and give something back.

Another opportunity I was given was to visit the baths. Although it was a very different experience from what it usually is, it was a deeply moving service and I felt extremely privileged to be allowed to join in. 

The services were a great celebration. We were able to join as one and offer all our prayers, worries and thoughts to God together as a family. 

We spent the whole week enjoying these wonderful experiences. Working as a young handmaid, I was up at 6am every morning to help with breakfast, walked miles every day pushing wheelchairs and helped our supported pilgrims in any way I could. 

I loved every minute of it and was honoured to be able to help. We laughed, we talked, we listened, we cried, we even celebrated the Queen’s jubilee – and at the heart of everything was our faith. 

These people who only a few days before were strangers put their trust in me, they believed in me and encouraged me to do more. I have never worked so hard, but they were the most rewarding five days I have ever had. I always believed I had a strong faith but when you go to Lourdes your faith shines. It’s like a recharge, a rock-solid strength comes over you and a calming sense of reassurance that your faith can get you through anything – even making it to the top of the bank pushing the wheelchair!

Lourdes also showed me that faith isn’t just something I “have”, it is there to be shared, and the more you share your faith with others, the stronger it gets for you all. 

Faith is about community, about belonging, about using this wonderful gift God has given us to help others. It is also about love, and I felt surrounded by this from arriving at the airport to arriving back at Teesside.
I don’t think I have ever seen people take so long to leave an airport, so many hugs, thanks and goodbyes – or should I say, see-you-soons! It truly was a fantastic experience, an amazing opportunity and an inspiring journey.  

I am so grateful for the help that the Duchess of Leeds Assumption Fund and Catenians gave me to enable me to make this Pilgrimage.

It has embedded a seed in me that will grow, and I’m sure I will be back in Lourdes again soon to do it all again.