Page 10, 10th August 1979

10th August 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 10th August 1979 — Triumph and agony the ritual of Lourdes

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Locations: York, Lisbon, Rome, Bath, Canterbury


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Triumph and agony the ritual of Lourdes

4Charterhouse2 Chronicle boles CH A RTERHOUSE appears to be in Lourdes still unrecovered from a railway journey across France in a couchette shared with five Anglicans, mostly clergy. For I am on an inter-church pilgrimage on a journalist's business.

Nonetheless, I went to Mass last Sunday. Once again I pounded down the street of frightful shops and in through the gates to the Domain where the tide of commercialism stops dead as if another Moses had lifted a rod to turn back the thieves. There was a special international Mass for the sick, It was held in the vast St Pius X Basilica. It is crepuscular, of massive concrete, underground, completely unadorned except for an altar at one end and the main one at the other. People tend to compare it with an underground car park and then later through some routine occasion find themselves close to tears. There are a lot of tears in Lourdes. But they are very good ones, I arrived a quarter of an hour before Mass and the place was already packed. It is said to hold 20,000. There were row upon row of the sick, some lying down, some sitting in the Lourdes equivalent of the Bath chair.

Some were in a fearful way. But it is taken for granted here. You do not stare. You do not comment upon this public parade of mortality, There are no murmurs of compassion, though you will see large young men holding the hands of fractious spastic children. During the Mass there were no miracles, but there were certainly casualties.

I was sitting on the concrete by the door to the Red Cross set-up. Every now and again stretcher bearers would dash into the congregation and emerge with an old woman gone grey in the face or just to wheel in an old man taken short. It was difficult and scarcely necessary to pray in such a setting.

Before the Mass there was a sort of pre-TV warm-up. We practised the fashionable French chants. Various national and diocesan pilgrimages were recognised. The Irish got more applause than the English. The Spaniards wildly applauded themselves and the Poles got more than anyone.

The Mass began with a procession of enough priests to make i three companies n the Brigade of Guards. All in albs with broad stoles. Then a platoon of priests in green chasubles. And then about six bishops, with the Archbishop of Metz in charge.

You have to change gear in Lourdes. The place is not wholly English. On sacred occasions there is either the best crowd scene in the world — far better than at any cup-tic — or there is a babble in innumerable tongues. There are notices for silence and the man at the microphone usually precedes his announcements with a strong "shush". It does not matter.

Slowly the mob of priests enfolded the altar. But from about 100 yards away I could see few details. They had a terrific choir. unsubtle and splendid; the organ literally peeled and the public address system worked beautifully, though some bishop was banging it now and again with his mitre or something which makes a small explosion of sound. The acoustics were splendid.

The Mass itself was in Latin with the several hundred priests all chanting the canon on a single note. The Bidding Prayers were multi-lingual. The English prayer was done by our Anglican chaplain, vested like all the others.

He is Father Peter Geldard of the Church Union, charming and frightfully well-informed in the Roman manner. (He also kicked me in the stomach when he got out of bed in that foul couchette.) Unwillingly, but happily and politely and instructedly, he got involved in the concelebration.

His prayer was the clearest and the shortest. He prayed for England and the Holy Spirit to help in their choice of "our next chief bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury. '

They. sang the credo like thunder. At the elevations the archbishop raised the Host and the Chalice very carefully to each quarter of the lobe. I thought only the Pope and the Patriarch of Lisbon were allowed to do that. Still the gigantic, indefinable murmur of the crowd flowed round it like lapping water and it

did not matter, _ At the end Bishop Wilfrid Westall, who leads our lot, late of Crediton, a gentle and humble and loving person whose love clearly embraces Rome, was invited to join in the blessing with • the Archbishop of Metz, In the final recession, while the choir sang sonic French words to our dear Trumpet Voluntary, there was Bishop Westall in his purple being jollied along by two mitred French bishops. Goodness knows how our bishop replied, for his French is atrocious. All most un-English. But marvellous.

Daunting ceremony

THE ALMOST unendurable climax of the Lourdes day is the afternoon procession of the Blessed Sacrament. There the sick are arranged, deep in depth, under the merciful trees in front of the Lourdes equivalent of the Piazza of St Peter.

It is at once God triumphant and agonising. Some of the sick would not in England be shown in public. Some weep. Some cannot articulate the massive hymns. Some shout a little. Some are unaware. Some are of the age and condition that makes one wonder about the mercy of God.

On Saturday there was a vast mob from all over the world. Slowly, first with spectators and then with the official pilgrims, the whole contrived arena filled and at last the Blessed Sacrament carried by a Spanish bishop came out of some corner.

The bishop go4s slowly around the arena under 4 silken umbrella of state, pausing every few steps to make the sign of the cross with the golden image of the Sun God in his hands.

Bishop Westall had been put in the place of honour immediately behind the Sacrament and he lost his cool. He wept a little and he was not alone. A spastic child (I do not know myldiseases) tried to make the sign of the cross and he hurried to help,' but a nurse got

there first. , This almost daunting ritual ends with the whole mob singing the Tantum Ergo. They have an outside organ slo that the singing stayed in tune land in time while the people sang in absorbed emotion. I

Before thei ceremony began various pilgrimages were shunted onto the Piazza. It was a slow sort of crescendo of crowd-making with the multi-lingual pilgrims following great drooping flags. And suddenly; there was a great red banner arriong them, the sort trade unions carry in processions, with a white dove on it and above that the single word "A mpleforth"i They had brought more than 57 sick people . rom Emgland and were caring for them as part of their holiday ,1 They also had two doctors and two SRNs to help

out. I I

This is thei 26th year they have

done this and they are now treated as al diocesan pilgrimage in their own right.

While on that subject, an interesting thing has happened in Catholic jodrnalism. Ampleforth for generations has, like most schools and communities, produced a Imagazine called The Journal. It 'grew from being a pious house magazine, with news of games payed in a continuous drizzle and tsf' old boys who had been made Governors of New South Wales and of monks who had died of a great old age in an infirmary in York, to a curious amalgam of a learned magazine and a school magazine.

So y.ou would get an article on 'Inter-communion with an account of the game against Mount St Mary's. On the whole it was an uneasy bed fellowship.

Now, like an up and coming amoeba, it has split. The Ampleforth Journal remains of prime interest to those who have to use that appalling title of Old Boy, thought it is rather fun and tells who has got the MBE when you phiaevroertnhot.RBtevitietwhere is now an come out twice a year and be a very solid and elegant addition to the extraordinary spectrum of Catholic journalism — which embraces missionary empires and high politics and the most profound learning and the most fearful piety.

If the first number, with solid articles on the Pope and on Newman and on Africa and with book reviews and some religious reportage is any indication. it is going to be rather fun, though I fear its editor would not like it described thus. If you are interested, you could write to Mrs R. Walker, the Secretary, Ampleforth Abbey, York.

The Black Monks generally seem to be making a remarkable comeback and Ampleforth seems to be the Cluny de nos jours. Not that they have any Cluniac tendencies.

Nightmare come true

I HAVE a recurrent nightmare. It consists of being lost in a strange and foreign city without knowing where my hotel was. Now it has actually happened — and in Lourdes.

I went out to dinner with a friend I had met by chance in the Grotto. Actually he is the master of the Queen's Music and this is after all a gossip column. I suppose there are taxis in Lourdes, but I have not seen any. So I walked home and realised I did not know the address or even the name of my unpretentious little hotel.

I walked in mounting fear and rage for over an hour through parts of Lourdes that no living person has seen before, There were whole districts abandoned to hotels, their streets brilliant with cafes where pilgrims hot from the nightly candle-light procession were drinking Belgian beer or fiz_zy orange. There were even places which did not sell rosaries.

The only thing I knew was the way from the Domain to my hotel. My French is fractured — indeed, it was never whole. But I hate asking the way and it sounds so silly to ask the way to the Grotto, late at night, in Lourdes.

Despair! I went up to a group on the pavement. In careful French I posed my shaming question. I was answered by some young priest in undress from England in cheerful terms (could he have seen through my French?) and was pointed in the right direction, Actually, the restaurant, I discovered, was about 300 yards from my hotel.

Young Father, wherever and whoever you are, thank you very much. I would love to promise that Charterhouse will get you made a Protonotary Apostolic, but he cannot. You will only have to accept his thanks — under the usual conditions.

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