‘To Care for Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle’
As retired U.S. Marine Paul McQuigg approached the sacred baths at the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, he assisted a young brother Marine in and out of the cool waters. The drenched young warrior was visibly moved by the experience, and McQuigg, a fellow wounded warrior, was himself stirred by the presence of scores of soldiers gathered in prayer.
“It was extremely humbling,” said McQuigg, a member of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Council 9111 in Oceanside, Calif. “No one prays harder for peace than those who have been through war.”
McQuigg was among the more than 200 U.S. pilgrims who took part in the Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage for Wounded or Disabled Military Personnel May 13-17. Organized by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and sponsored by the Knights of Columbus for the third consecutive year, the pilgrimage coincided with the 57th International Military Pilgrimage (Pèlerinage Militaire International or PMI), which included delegations from approximately 35 countries.
U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio and Auxiliary Bishop F. Richard Spencer led the U.S. pilgrims — a group that included active troops, military veterans, family members, chaplains, volunteers, support staff and a Fourth Degree honor guard. They were joined by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and other K of C representatives, and together had the opportunity to pray and worship at what has long been one of the most popular sites of Catholic devotion in the world.
SITE OF GROWING DEVOTION
Located in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, the town of Lourdes was visited in 1858 by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. Dressed in white, Our Lady appeared in the hollow of a granite cave, or grotto, and revealed herself as “the Immaculate Conception” on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25. Mary directed St. Bernadette to uncover an underground spring and to “tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here.”
By the late 19th century, pilgrims began flocking to the shrine. Within a few decades, the Knights of Columbus organized the first-ever military pilgrimage to Lourdes in the aftermath of World War I.
In a message to this year’s pilgrims, Supreme Knight Anderson explained, “From its beginnings, the Knights of Columbus has understood the sacrifices of those in military service,” noting that the Order established Army Hut facilities throughout the United States and Europe during World War I.
In the spring of 1919, with an official K of C Army Hut established in Lourdes, Knights in France coordinated a pilgrimage that attracted thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed across Europe. According to a report from the period, some 3,000 soldiers had arrived by the feast of the Annunciation.
“All of Lourdes was there,” the report said. “‘I have lived in Lourdes for twenty years,’ said a French lady, ‘but I have never seen anything so wonderful as this.’”
Following the pilgrimage, repeated requests from American pilgrims prompted the Order to publish a Guide to Lourdes in May 1919. Nearly a century later, 6 million pilgrims visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes annually to seek physical, psychological or spiritual healing.
During the opening Mass for this year’s Warriors to Lourdes pilgrims on May 14, Archbishop Broglio welcomed the more than 200 participants.
“We come to this wonderful shrine with many intentions,” Archbishop Broglio said in his homily. “For some it will be health of mind and body; for others it might be part of a vocation search. Still others ask the Virgin for blessings on families. We all pray for those deployed in harm’s way, and we beg our Mother to intercede with her Son so that the world might experience that peace only he can bring.”
‘MY BROTHER’S KEEPER’
Since the Knights of Columbus started co-sponsoring the wounded warriors pilgrimage in 2013, the number of attendees has steadily increased. Growing from 125 participants in 2013 to more than 160 in 2014, this year’s contingent of 203 included more than 80 wounded, sick or disabled military pilgrims, many of whom sustained physical injuries in battle or who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition to family members, clergy, support staff and 45 volunteers, an honor guard from Father H. Timothy Vakoc Assembly at Ramstein Air Base in Germany took part in all major events. Together, the Warriors to Lourdes group accounted for just over half of the total U.S. delegation.
In his homily at the welcome Mass for all U.S. pilgrims May 15, Bishop Spencer urged those present to use the gift of their time in Lourdes together wisely.
“Let us to heed our Blessed Mother’s call to conversion of heart,” he said, “so that the world might be a better place for all as we truly live and are our ‘brother’s keeper.’”
Bishop Spencer’s statement echoed the theme for this year’s international pilgrimage — “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” — which, in turn, was inspired by an address given by Pope Francis in September 2014 at the Italian cemetery in Redipuglia, where some 100,000 soldiers who died during World War I are buried.
Altogether, more than 12,000 people participated in this year’s international pilgrimage. Major events included the opening ceremony, featuring international marching bands in full regalia, a Marian procession and candlelight vigil, a sports challenge event, and the concluding Mass.
The Warriors to Lourdes pilgrims also participated in a number of other events and spiritual activities, including private Masses, K of C-organized faith and fellowship sessions, a tour of the sanctuary grounds and a visit to the baths.
McQuigg, who was severely wounded while leading a troop of Marines in Iraq in 2006, was accompanied on the pilgrimage by his wife and son. For nearly a decade, McQuigg has lived with constant pain from his combat injuries, which included a shattered jaw, the loss of more than half of his tongue, and neurological damage to his left arm and leg.
“I’ll always feel the effects,” he said. “But after the baths, my chronic pain has diminished a great deal.”
What was equally impressive, McQuigg added, was the unity of faith among the military pilgrims. “To be there with so many of our allies, and to see their devotion to Christ and to peace, was an amazing testament.”
‘A SIGN OF HOPE’
Among this year’s volunteers who were instrumental in galvanizing council support to send wounded warriors to Lourdes was William Schecher, a member of Stella Maris Council 3772 in San Clemente, Calif. Just months before his departure for the pilgrimage, Schecher “got a spur-of-the-moment idea,” as he put it.
“I went to my council with flyers printed in huge block letters that read: Help Send a Wounded Warrior to Lourdes,” he explained. “In less than two months we collected just under $6,000. One donation for $2,600 — the full cost for one wounded warrior — came from a fellow council member who is a West Point grad and Vietnam vet.”
Wounded warriors also received support from the Washington State Council, Father Anthony McGirl Council 7907 in Issaquah, Wash., Our Lady of the Lake Assembly in Pell City, Ala., Delaware’s Fourth Degree district and California’s Central district.
“This is a fantastic way for councils to help out the wounded warriors who have done so much and sacrificed so much for us,” said Schecher, who volunteered in an “at-large” capacity during this year’s pilgrimage.
In his second inaugural address, just seven years after the apparitions in Lourdes, President Abraham Lincoln called upon the country “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Now, 150 years later, the Knights’ sponsorship of the Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage seeks to provide such care and foster such peace.
In his homily during the international pilgrimage’s concluding Mass on Sunday, May 17, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and a former archbishop of Québec, said, “At present, we find ourselves in the midst of a ‘third world war’ on multiple fronts,” echoing an expression that Pope Francis has often used.
“The presence of military ordinaries and their faithful here in Lourdes today is a sign of hope in the dramatic times that we are living,” added Cardinal Ouellet, who has been a Knight since 2002.
As more than 20,000 people filled the shrine’s Basilica of St. Pius X, the cardinal urged those present to draw from “the fountain of living water of the Spirit of Christ” and “to pray the rosary as often as possible, that the intercession of Mary may obtain for us the grace to be bearers of good news — authentic signs of fraternity, compassion and peace.”
For more information about the Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage and how to sponsor a wounded warrior in 2016, visit warriorstolourdes.com.