Lourdes: Archdiocese has unique pairing with French diocese

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, September 5, 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)

Twenty-four years ago, Father Wayne Watts, pastor of St. John Berchmans Parish, 2517 W. Logan Blvd., started taking young people to Lourdes, France, to volunteer to help the sick, who are called “malades.”

Ten years ago, during the first-ever official Archdiocese of Chicago pilgrimage led by Cardinal Francis George, the archdiocese established a formal twinning relationship with the Diocese of Belley-Ars, France, to help its malades every year. 

The young people transport the malades to their scheduled Masses, services, processions and visits to the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette and more. 

During the 2008 trip, Watts was also made an honorary chaplain at the Lourdes shrine, an honor that recognizes a priest’s lifelong service to the shrine. With the distinction, he was given a pectoral cross, and he has precedence when celebrating public Masses at the shrine.  
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 each year. 

Dioceses the world over arrange annual pilgrimages where they bring their sick, and volunteers, called hospitaliers, look after their needs. 
The relationship between Chicago youth and the French diocese is unique, Watts said. 

“Lourdes was started by a young person,” he said. “This relationship with the Diocese of Belley-Ars and the Archdiocese of Chicago was started by young people and it has grown into something very special.”

Bishop Pascal Roland of the Diocese of Belley-Ars agreed. 

“It’s a very good sign of catholicity,” said Bishop Roland during his diocese’s pilgrimage this year July 24-29. “‘Catholic’ means ‘universal.’ It is a sign of the universality of the church, and it is a great help for our pilgrimage.”

Volunteering with the sick at Lourdes helps the young people see a bit of heaven, Bishop Roland said. 

“I’ve always said that Lourdes is a little glimpse of heaven because here people don’t live as they live in the world,” Bishop Roland said. “In the world, they live their life seeking to be the strongest. Here the poor people are at the center and everybody is looking to the poor or the disabled. The people who are feeble are right at the center of our preoccupations. That is the right thing to do. That’s why Lourdes is very important.”

Volunteering with the malades also helps the youth appreciate the sanctity of all life.

“A grace of Lourdes is that we have a mixture of all sorts of people,” Bishop Roland said. “That’s very important for young people to meet other sorts of people, especially people who are old or not able-bodied. Then they discover they can be friends if they don’t have to worry that the person is sick or anything else.”  

Prior to the relationship with Belley-Ars, Watts and the youth volunteered all over Lourdes, doing things like helping the malades at the train station and in the baths where people are submerged in the spring water. Looking for a more established arrangement, Watts reached out to Arnaut Penet, then the  choir director for the shrine. 

Watts met Penet volunteering in the shrine’s choir. The two came up with the idea of the Chicago teens volunteering directly with a diocese. The first time Watts’ group volunteered with Belley-Ars was in 2006, Penet said. 

“We found Belley-Ars because Belley-Ars was coming to Lourdes every year around the same time Father Watts’ group was,” he said. “The first year, 2006, they worked and the Belley-Ars diocese asked them to come back the next year.”

The relationship was formalized between Cardinal George and the bishop of Belley-Ars in 2008. A group from Belley-Ars will travel to Chicago Sept. 24-Oct. 3 for a hands-on experience of how Catholic and local organizations care for the sick and disabled. 

Having young people from Chicago help during the week makes a difference, because there are never enough volunteers, said Claire Chaventon, a young adult from the Diocese of Belley-Ars who has volunteered on several pilgrimages.  

Chaventon is one of thousands of volunteers who give up their own vacation time and pay their own fare to Lourdes to serve the malades. Many are associated with formal pilgrimages, while others volunteer on their own.  

The malades look forward to seeing the youth from Chicago. 

“We have a lot of old people and sick people and they are happy to see the kids. It’s fresh,” Chaventon said. “The malades really like the time when [the Chicago youth] are with us.”

Working with the malades is a rewarding experience, Chaventon said. 

“We are their hands and their legs and they are our soul,” she said. “When you don’t do it each year, you miss it and want to come back.”
A pilgrim from Chicago agreed. 

“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.”


  • pilgrimage
  • lourdes

Related Articles