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Saturday 17 August 2019

Lourdes trip which brings people back

FR BRIAN WHELAN

AS YOU read this I am in the South of France. And before you get jealous of me basking in the Côte d'Azur, let me quickly add that I am on pilgrimage in Lourdes!

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the IHCPT, the Irish Pilgrimage Trust, a charitable organisation which takes children and young people with special needs and disabilities to Lourdes every Easter. It's a tough but very rewarding week, in which more than 1,100 people from all over Ireland share a week of prayer, friendship and fun together in the famous international Marian shrine.

Even though the Irish Trust has been in existence for 40 years at this stage, the story goes back to the 1950s. The Pilgrimage Trust was formed in the UK in 1956 after a young doctor, Michael Strode, first took four children with disabilities on a pilgrimage holiday to Lourdes, and at the same time revolutionised the way children with disabilities could experience a trip to this famous international shrine in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Not content with letting the children stay in the usual hospitals and hospices, Dr Michael wanted them to stay in hotels as honoured guests and to get as much out of their holiday as other children – trips to cafés, a donkey ride in the mountains and the warmth and affection of a holiday among caring friends. So impressive was this idea that the pilgrimage quickly grew and spread, with the Irish Trust being formed in 1971, and from the original group of a couple of children and a few adult helpers, the total size of the Easter pilgrimage is now about 5,000 – the largest pilgrimage from the UK and Ireland and probably the largest children's pilgrimage from any country.

Over the years I have been privileged to meet and get to know many wonderful people. I have met many incredible volunteer helpers. These people give up their holiday time and instead of a week in the Canaries or some other holiday destination, they opt to travel to Lourdes with the children. They not only have to pay their own fare of €650, but they also have the task of fundraising to make sure that the children don't have to pay and that no matter what the family circumstances, no child is prevented from travelling for financial reasons. Many of the helpers return year on year, and would sooner miss their week in the sun than miss Lourdes with the children. In my group this year there are five third-level students travelling as helpers, all of whom travelled before while in secondary school. Young lads who you would imagine should be living the highlife in college, partying and living it up, but instead who choose to travel back to Lourdes as helpers. Why? Because it's a fantastic experience.

I've also met a lot of amazing children and young people, who have some very difficult disabilities or circumstances, and yet who have such a positive outlook on life, and whose smiles would melt even the hardest of hearts. I've met children who have shown incredible courage in the face of serious illness, some of whom had terminal illnesses. I've met children who have grown up without any love in their home. I've met children who are facing a future which could be best described as bleak. And I've met children who in spite of it all are some of the most selfless and caring people you could possibly meet. I remember a couple of years ago we had a child in our group who was particularly unwell. The other children showered him with kindness and love and were so concerned about him that they completely forgot their own difficulties, at least for a few days. Despite their own problems, children have an incredible capacity to teach us the true meaning of life, and ' how to live, to laugh, and to love'. And to see how much they enjoy the week is fantastic.

For 40 years people from Ireland have travelled to Lourdes on the Easter children's pilgrimage. This year 1,100 people will travel, half of them as special guests, and the other half as helpers. The trip lasts for a week, and it's truly a week of laughter, sharing, caring, and love. Everyone who travels to Lourdes, helper or guest, gets something out of it. For some it's simply the feeling of being accepted as no different from anyone else, despite disabilities. For others, they may experience the famous feeling of 'peace' that one gets at the grotto. I'd recommend it to everyone, but be warned – when you go once, you'll catch the bug to go again and again and again! 2011 is my 15th year travelling at Easter, and I can't imagine a year without it!

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