The annual Order of Malta pilgrimage in May to the Lourdes shrine in France is always an emotional encounter, with the organization sponsoring dozens of malades (“sick” or “disabled people”) to travel to the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

The trip typically consists of washing of the feet, collecting and bathing in water from the Grotto of Massabielle, and a candlelight procession. This year, Archbishop José H. Gomez joined the pilgrimage and celebrated a special Mass for pilgrims in the Lourdes grotto.

The malades make the trek to experience some kind of healing — not necessarily a miracle cure to what ails them, but for peace and joy in the face of suffering.

These are just a few of the narratives from some in the Western U.S. who went, served, witnessed, and experienced the pilgrimage, from April 30 to May 8.

Michelle Carter, malade

The washing of the feet ceremony was an emotional, exhilarating, blessed moment. The sense of humility and care of others was tangible in the church. I serve as a doctor of psychology and I usually contain my emotions. As a knight washed my feet and my husband had his arm around my shoulders, tears streamed down my face. The only way of describing the feeling is to say, “I felt like I was in heaven.”

One of the knights said the trip to Lourdes is like Disneyland for Catholics. I responded, “I think I will name this pilgrimage ‘a Spiritual Boot Camp.’ He laughed. The combination of humor, laughter, tears, reflection, prayers, camaraderie — there are no words to describe. Both my husband and I have felt this is a journey of a lifetime and will forever be grateful to the members of the Order of Malta.

During his homily, Archbishop Gomez said, “Mary has come to bring us hope and healing, just as she did here at Lourdes.” (Order of Malta Western (USA) Association, Inc.)

Ben Lochtenberg, Order of Malta provisional knight

I have witnessed feet washing in our own parish when our pastor washes the feet of 12 members of our community every Holy Thursday. I understood the symbolism of the act, although I was never an active participant.

Today was a special experience. At the designated time, I moved into position and helped Michelle take her seat while I adjusted the jug and bowl for optimal efficiency. I removed her left shoe and sock and firmly held her perfect and beautiful foot in my hands. I was immediately overcome by the Holy Spirit and realized that it was no longer a mechanical task ahead of me. I was now an instrument of God’s healing power.

I poured some cold water, perhaps only one tablespoon, and immediately enveloped Michelle’s foot firmly with my two hands. I paused and said a prayer of healing. I did not want to let it go. The feeling was of pure joy and peace. The power to give, to serve, and to heal came all of a sudden over and through me. I have never felt such a purpose to serve and the ecstasy of that moment. I did not want it to end.

Father Patrick Mulcahy, Order of Malta provisional chaplain

One of the beautiful ironies of ministry is that so often the givers become the receivers. That became the reality for me as a first-time chaplain to accompany this journey to Lourdes. I began by thinking about all that I could do for our beautiful malades. That was my plan.

I was immediately disarmed by an early encounter with one, a woman who is facing great challenges in her life. She began by reminding me of a previous encounter at a retreat and that she has prayed for me every day since that retreat experience.

“Wait a minute, I am here for you,” I thought. And at that moment, I realized we were here for each other. That is the essence of the Christian life and it set the tone for the rest of my beautiful time here. I was as broken and in need as those whom we called malades, and we ministered to each other in the person of Christ.

Dennis Diekmann, Order of Malta knight

Lourdes has called to me ever since I was a child.

In the winter of 1956 my parents, Albert and Otillia, boarded a plane in Long Beach, California, on a pilgrimage to meet with our mother in Lourdes. 

In 1948 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. She had a mastectomy followed by radiation and chemo as it was available at that time. I was born in 1951 and my mother received the news that her cancer had returned in 1954. This time it was in her spine, and it would later metastasize to her lungs. Neither the doctors nor her priest thought she would be able to make the trip, but my mother’s will was such that my parents boarded that flight in January 1956.

Once they were checked in to the Bethanie Hotel in Lourdes they met an American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Emmet Culligan from San Bernardino. After talking with my parents and realizing what condition my mother was in, Mr. Culligan quickly organized a small private pilgrimage group with a couple from Indiana and another couple from Australia. 

The six of them stayed with my parents the whole time, going to the baths, the stations of the cross, the Masses, and the benedictions for the sick, and accompanying them to and from their hotel. My mother, who could only walk a block or two back home, walked the half-mile from their hotel to the grotto each day. That itself was a miracle.

My mother passed on to her heavenly reward in January 1957 and my father was left to raise three boys by himself. 

My mother had hoped that I would become a priest but that was not to be. Instead, through a long and circuitous route, I had found myself back in Lourdes. I say I was back because I have always felt that a part of me was there with my mother in 1956.

And so now the circle was complete. My mother and father were helped on their pilgrimage by strangers that became friends. Now I have the privilege to be the stranger who is able to help other pilgrims on their journey. I know the pain, the uncertainty, the doubts that so many of them experience. Whether you are a malade now or in 1956, those feelings are the same.

Gala M. Riveros, malade, 10 years old

One event that was moving was the baths. My Mom, Dad, and I went into a small private room where a lady guided us on what to do. She gave us water to put on our faces and our hands, then she gave me a cup to drink out of and told us to pray to the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Here at Lourdes, it feels like Mary is with us, and I love that feeling.

Words just cannot describe how beautiful it is at Lourdes. If you are blessed to come here like I was, you are in for a treat!

Archbishop Gomez hands an Order of Malta commemorative medal to Gala Riveros, a 10-year-old malade. (Order of Malta Western (USA) Association, Inc.)

Sister Anne Marie, Carmelite sister and volunteer

What made the deepest impression in my heart was the unexpected grace of seeing our petitions being brought into the plaza and reverently placed at the feet of Our Lady. 

We had placed these written prayers in the grotto that morning, prayers that reached out in supplication to Our Lord at the hands of Our Lady. I know that a few of them were from people whom I know and love, others from people I may never get to meet on this side of the veil. Tears fell from my face in an overflow of joy and gratitude to an awesome God who loved us so much that he gave us his own mother to be ours. 

I pray that in some way all will be able to feel this consolation and come to know that Our Lady is here to be with us through it all.

Denise Morris, companion to a malade

This journey was the fulfillment of a promise I had made to the Blessed Mother nearly 39 years ago. After my husband and I married, I struggled for years to conceive a child. I desperately wanted to become a mother. I prayed fervently to our Blessed Mother.

A dear friend and co-worker named Kathleen was planning a trip to Lourdes. Kathleen had been battling cancer for years. After a long remission, her cancer had returned. There was nothing more the doctors could do for her, so Kathleen decided to travel to Lourdes, not necessarily for a miracle cure, but for peace and strength. She knew all about my fertility struggles and promised to ask our Blessed Mother for help. Kathleen returned from Lourdes filled with peace. Sadly, she passed away a few months later. 

Shortly after Kathleen's passing, I learned that I was pregnant. I truly believe that the Blessed Mother had heard Kathleen’s prayers. I made a promise to Our Lady that one day I would travel to Lourdes to thank her in person and to pray for dear Kathleen. The beautiful Mass at the grotto was especially meaningful to me, as it was celebrated on May 4 — my daughter Danielle’s 38th birthday, the daughter I was blessed with thanks to the intercession of our Blessed Mother, and a little nudge from Kathleen!