Service to the sick in Lourdes transforms lives of local young people

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Service to the sick in Lourdes transforms lives of local young people

For the past 24 years, Father Wayne Watts, pastor of St. John Berchmans, 2511 W. Logan Blvd., has taken young people in high school and college to Lourdes, France, to volunteer with the sick, or malades, as they are called there. Editor Joyce Duriga accompanied the pilgrims on their journey July 22-Aug. 3, 2018 to witness the transformations first hand.
Volunteers from Chicago and the Diocese of Belley Ars, France, push the sick in an evening rosary procession at the sanctuary in Lourdes, France, July 26. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Rory Neenan pulls the chariots of a malade as the group transports them from the hospital during their pilgrimage July 24. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Eric Ortiz pushes a malade through the grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. Pilgrims touch the walls of the grotto as they pass. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Chicago young people pull malades through the grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. Pilgrims touch the walls of the grotto as they pass. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Claire Russelll hugs a malade after giving him a T-shirt from Chicago July 25. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Luke Phillips hugs a malade after giving her a T-shirt from Chicago July 25. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Father Wayne Watts celebrates Mass with the pilgrims in a chapel at Lourdes July 27. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Joe Thursby and Rory Neenan pray during Mass July 27. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Consuelo Sahagun de Ortiz pulls a malade through Lourdes July 28. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Father Watts and Jack Nettleton hand out T-shirts and hats from Chicago to youth from Belley Ars, France, July 28. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
The pilgrims kneel as they pray the stations of the cross on a hill above Lourdes July 28. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers, called "hospitaliers," from the Diocese of Belly Ars wear armbands identifying their group. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Statues of Mary for sale around Lourdes. (Joyce Duriga/Chicago Catholic)
Marco Marcato of Italy passes a clergyman and woman religious as he visits the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes July 27 in France before the start of the Tour de France cycling race. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)
Marco Marcato of Italy is greeted by Father Andre Cabes, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, as he visits the grotto July 27 before the start of the Tour de France cycling race. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)
A cyclist passes a statue of Mary July 27 during the Tour de France cycling race in Lourdes. (CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)

For the past 24 years, Father Wayne Watts, pastor of St. John Berchmans, 2517 W. Logan Blvd., has taken young people in high school and college to Lourdes, France, to volunteer with the sick, or malades, as they are called there. 

In that time hundreds of lives have been transformed and faith deepened. Alumni of the trip are spread out around the country and still speak of the effect the pilgrimage had on their lives. Many siblings of pilgrims have gone after their brother or sister returned praising the journey.

This year I accompanied the pilgrims on their journey July 22-Aug. 3 to witness the transformations first hand. This is the first of three stories about the pilgrimage’s history and its impact.

Lourdes is the town where Mary appeared 18 times to the 14-year-old St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. 

The site quickly became known as a place for miracles and 80,000 sick and disabled people from many countries visit Lourdes each year, according to the website of the sanctuary. During one apparition, Mary revealed a natural spring and urged Bernadette to drink and wash from it. People come from all over to do the same. 

Dioceses arrange annual pilgrimages where they bring their sick, and volunteers, called hospitaliers, transport them around in chariots or wheelchairs.  

Over 24 years ago, a parishioner who gave Watts a set of vestments from Lourdes first suggested the idea for organizing a pilgrimage for local young people.

“I thought she was crazy, he said. “There was no way I was taking kids to Europe.”

He thought and prayed about it and took his first group in 1994. Right away he saw Christian charity in action and the rest is history. In 2005 he started going a second time each year with adults. He now has combined the two groups and goes once a year.

Prayer and the sacraments are a centerpiece of the pilgrimage and smartphone use for both youth and adults is strongly discouraged. The young people have long days meeting the malades and transporting them to their scheduled Masses, services, processions, visits to the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette and more. In the evenings, before having some free time, they gather in small groups for faith sharing.

“I say over and over again that this is a pilgrimage and not a vacation,” Watts said.

In 2008, he organized the Archdiocese of Chicago’s first-ever official pilgrimage to Lourdes with Cardinal Francis George. During that trip, the archdiocese formed an official twinning relationship with the Diocese of Belley Ars in France where now, Watts’ group volunteers each year with their malades. (See story about the twinning relationship in Sept. 9 issue.)

The time spent in service to the malades attracts the young people to the pilgrimage, and Watts’ emphasis on Mass, prayer, adoration, the sacrament of confession and getting “dipped” in the Lourdes baths brings them closer to Jesus through Mary.

“I loved working with the malades,” said Claire Russell, a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. “I think that’s where you see God the most. Jesus wanted us to help the sick and he wanted us to see him in the malades. In helping them we’re helping Jesus.”

This was Russell’s second pilgrimage to Lourdes. On her first pilgrimage last year she felt she developed a more personal relationship with God and afterward attended daily Mass at her school, Loyola Academy in Wilmette. 

“Before, I was going through the motions,” she said. “I went to church on Sundays with my family and I would pray every night. But I would just recite the prayers. Now I feel like my whole prayer life changed on this trip because I got to really discover and experience God in all things.”

This time she sought God’s guidance. 

“On this trip I just felt more at peace, especially with me going to college in the fall,” Russell said. “I just know that even though everything is changing I will always have God and my relationship with God.”

It was Russell who invited Luke Phillips on this year’s pilgrimage. The two formed a spiritual bond while attending daily Mass in the morning at their school. 

Phillips said working with the malades gave him a greater appreciation of the blessings in his life. 

“If you ever think that you are having a bad day there are always people — whether it’s the malades from Belley Ars or the thousands of people who come to Lourdes every year — who may have it much worse,” he said. “It’s really rewarding because you feel like you are providing a service that they need. 

The pilgrimage gave Phillips a view into the church beyond the United States.

“I’ve gained confidence in the overall universal church because you hear things like numbers are dropping in the church, the number of priests is dropping and then you see thousands of people in Lourdes every day from all over the place, walking in the procession, hearing 15 different languages at once,” he said. “It really gives you confidence that our faith is still a global phenomenon.” 

He also learned more about trusting in God.

“One of the things I learned is providence. It’s a word that Father Watts likes to use,” Phillips said. “I hadn’t even considered it before but it became such a theme on our trip — that we shouldn’t worry, the Holy Spirit will provide. It did on so many levels for us. It really kind of calmed me down sometimes when I was anxious and helped me realize the Holy Spirit is in control and God will provide.”

Joe Barletta, 17, said he had “no idea what I was getting myself into” when Watts invited him after he lectored one day at St. John Berchmans. 

“When I was walking out, Father Wayne said, ‘Hey, are you coming with us to Lourdes?’ And I said, ‘What’s a Lourdes?’” said Barletta, who attends St. Patrick High School. 

What he learned was that they would be helping sick people and that attracted him. Barletta described the pilgrimage as “an experience like no other.”

“It’s like a roller coaster ride,” he said. “It has its ups and downs but I can’t describe the feeling when you’re pulling the malades and they’re so grateful. The atmosphere at Lourdes is so wonderful.”

This was also the first time Aya Klos, 17, had been on a pilgrimage. 

“I knew it was going to be a trip where I could help others,” said Klos, who attends Notre Dame Parish in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. “That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want a vacation.”

While in Lourdes she had the chance to lead several Hail Mary’s in English in front of the thousands gathered for the nightly rosary procession. 

“It was really amazing to see so many people gathered for the same purpose even though we are from different countries,” Klos said. “We’re all united and connected.”

As with the others, working with the malades left an impression upon her.

“It was really amazing to see how we didn’t really even have to speak the same language to communicate,” she said. 

The pilgrims from the Diocese of Belley Ars spoke mostly French and the pilgrims from Chicago spoke mostly English. 

“It was nice to have a connection without having to speak the language. It’s amazing how you can develop relationships in different ways.”
Before the pilgrimage, Klos said she was stressed out over whether or not she was pleasing God. 

“I was so worried about being sinful but at the same time I knew I was sinful because we all are. I was just getting so stressed out about what I should do or how I should pray,” she said. “After going on this trip I feel like I’ve become more peaceful in my religion. I know that God loves everybody and he wants us to be with him. That’s one of the greatest comforts ever.”

Noreen Russo has chaperoned the pilgrimage every year since 2010 and assists Watts with all aspects of the trip. Her family — all of whom have been on the pilgrimage at different times — met Watts when Russo’s younger brother died of SIDS when she was 5 years old.

The transformation in the youth keeps her coming back. 

“Every year it’s unbelievable to see them from the beginning to the end and that’s really why I participate. I think it’s so important for the young people to have this experience,” Russo said. “I know hundreds of people who have gone on this trip and people still talk about it.” 

Through service to the malades, the young people see faith in action.

“It shows them a love that they won’t get through TV or Netflix or Snapchat,” she said. “It’s real. It’s tangible. Everyone wants that — they just don’t know it. When they experience the service and the love, then you can bring them into the church.”


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  • lourdes

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