A Reflection on the Lourdes Pilgrimage

On May 3, 2017, I embarked on a journey for which I was completely unprepared. Together with our Foundation Director, Jen, I was on my way to represent Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation on the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.

I was eager for the opportunity to promote the works of the Order’s incredible Hospital in the Holy Land. But beyond that, despite all the encouragement I had heard from past pilgrims, I just didn’t see how a trip to France could grow my faith.

My expectations were low. Thankfully, that’s exactly the time at which God likes to surprise me the most.

Departure

That warm Wednesday afternoon, a swarm of eager pilgrims congregated at BWI Airport in Baltimore, MD.

Waiting at BWI Airport

Soon, Jen and I were introduced to twenty-eight strangers – our team. Some were Knights and Dames, others were volunteers like Jen and myself. We also met our Malades, the sick or disabled individuals who decided to brave the long journey to Lourdes in hopes of attaining physical and/or spiritual healing.

Serving these Malades, we were told, was our sole purpose on this pilgrimage.

Every day, Jen and I would be assigned to a different Malade, to accompany them and assist them through each step of the pilgrimage. I had so many questions, and no idea what to expect. What kind of care would do people need? How do I know if I can provide it? I have no medical training, no counseling experience. I am just a regular person, with seemingly little to give. What can I really do?

As it happened, I didn’t have much time to dwell on these questions. Our first Malade, Charles, had just walked through the doors to BWI with his companion, Edna.

Meeting our Malades

Federal Association Malade L'Arche Community Arlington Virginia Lourdes

Charles and Edna have lived together for over three years as members of the L’Arche Community in Arlington, VA. To learn more about L’Arche and its programs supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities, please click here.

I approached them to introduce myself. Shaking my hand, Charles exclaimed,

“I’m Charles! I’m going to join the Knights of Malta!”

Briefly caught off guard, I quickly congratulated him on this great honor and began escorting him to the check-in desk. As we shuffled over — Charles is eighty-year-old and walks with a cane — I heard all about his past travels, close friendship with Edna, and newfound desire to join the Order of Malta as a Knight. When we had made it to our gate, Charles took my hand and asked me,

“Katlyn, we’re friends, right?”

And with that, Charles gave me the first blessing of my pilgrimage. A new friend.

Arrival in Lourdes

Pilgrims cluster around one of Lourdes’ many souvenir shops.

After a long red-eye flight, we touched down in Tarbes, France. I fought to ignore my jet lag as we rode through the beautiful, rolling foothills of the French Pyrenees toward Lourdes. Somehow, the little village manages to be quaint and flashy all at once. Against the backdrop of St. Bernadette’s unassuming little hometown, dozens of shops loudly advertise their rosaries, t-shirts, figurines, and miniature bottles for collecting water.

Soon after arriving, we found our hotel rooms and quickly unpacked. As I donned my cape and veil for the first time, I finally started to feel like a pilgrim. And I could tell that others felt it too. Just like that, I was no longer just representing Holy Family Hospital but also the Order of Malta, and with it, centuries of its noble hospitaller history.

Katlyn Gangl and Jen McNulty at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

Jen and I stand in uniform outside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Tri-Association Mass

Then it was time for Mass. There was a palpable energy as the streets of Lourdes filled with Order of Malta pilgrims from all over the world. The three U.S. Associations of the Order converged in the magnificent Rosary Basilica to share in the celebration of the Eucharist. There we were, hundreds of men and women of faith gathered together in humble service of our Malades and their companions.

Mass in the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes, France

Msgr. Anthony Marcaccio, Aiden Parson, and Gabrielle Parson light a candle

Visiting the Baths

The next day we visited the baths, where we had the honor of accompanying our Malades into Lourdes’ healing waters. I prayed as I waited my turn while other pilgrims sang,

Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the strength to
Let you be my servant too.”

When I remember my time in Lourdes, these words always return to mind. Every day we were asked to set aside our own desires in order to attend to the needs of our Malades. How freeing it was to be able to look outside my own little bubble and instead focus on my neighbor. In those moments of true humility, we were able to share fully in each other’s pains and joys. It was a mutual experience of grace.

Our Malades helped us to quiet our hearts and be present to each other and to Christ. And for that, I know, we will always be grateful.

Blue Team Lourdes Pilgrimage 2017 Federal Association Order of Malta Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation

The Blue Team after visiting the Baths

President Margaret Melady of the Order of Malta's Federal Association in Lourdes on Pilgrimage

Processing in Faith

That night, together with pilgrims from the Order of Malta worldwide, we began the Marian Procession. As we walked, I stole glances at the faces of our Malades. In the waning evening light, I could see they were filled with peace.

I prayed for them. That the strength and hope they found in Lourdes not weaken upon their reentry into “real life”. I prayed that I, too, might be able to hold onto some of the graces I had found on this pilgrimage.

Mass in the Grotto

The Grotto Mass was a spiritual highlight of my pilgrimage experience. Our celebrant, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, spoke in his homily about the rich symbolism present in Mary’s appearance to St. Bernadette. The message of love that we receive from Our Lady of Lourdes has touched so many hearts, as can be witnessed by the millions of pilgrims who flock to her Grotto each year.

Lourdes Pilgrimage Order of Malta Cardinal Timothy Dolan Grotto Mass Our Lady of Lourdes

International Mass

We celebrated Sunday Mass in the underground St. Pius X Basilica with 25,000 of our fellow pilgrims. The multilingual service painted a beautiful picture of the universality of the Order, whose roots have stretched across the world uniting Catholics in a mission of service.

Here, I felt very small – just a tiny piece of this incredible arm of the Church. But praying among so many of these dedicated, caring individuals, I also felt more empowered than ever before. I stood united with the thousands of Knights and Dames who gathered around me, as well as with those unable to be in Lourdes with us. I stood united with countless members of the Order throughout the centuries who have worked tirelessly to care for the world’s most vulnerable – the poor and the sick.

Talent Show

On the second to last night, after spending a beautiful day with our teams in the French countryside, the entire Federal Association gathered for dinner and a talent show. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard as when our fellow pilgrims showcased their silly talents. From singing and dancing to auctioneering and harmonica-playing, there was not a dull moment the entire evening.

Reflecting

My pilgrimage experience reshaped my understanding of what it means to serve my neighbor, and that is no small thing. Every day I encounter people – family, friends, and strangers. These encounters are an opportunity to look for Christ in each other, and to show a little bit of Christ as well. Even in my work, supporting a very special hospital in the West Bank, I have been given a gift to serve someone in need.