Active and retired members of the U.S. Armed Forces said they were deeply moved by their experiences as part of the annual Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage, taking place this year May 15-22 during the 60th annual International Military Pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in France.
“It’s a great spiritual boost. It’s like having a reunion,” said Father Mark C. Bristol, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy ordained to the priesthood in 2016. “You’re meeting with guys who have served in similar areas and have had similar experiences. It feels wonderful to be here.”
Capt. Gary M. Rose, a Medal of Honor recipient, recommended the journey for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s so much faith here and so much concern for other people — especially for people suffering from PTSD of any kind,” he told Catholic News Service. Rose first visited Lourdes with his wife in 1982 and found it personally beneficial. He said he believes this second trip will also be helpful.
Rose and Father Bristol are traveling with a group of about 200, including staff and volunteers, participating in the pilgrimage, sponsored by the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Knights of Columbus. Included in the group are about 80 to 100 wounded veterans with their caregivers and families.
They arrived in Lourdes as thousands of military members from different nations descended upon the site for the 160th anniversary of the Marian apparition in Lourdes and the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I. The weeklong pilgrimage also included Pentecost Sunday.
“Every hour you see more pilgrims pouring in — many in different uniforms, speaking different languages. It’s an overwhelming and humbling experience to take part in all this,” said Kathleen Thorp, a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “I will forever be grateful for this blessing and this grace.”
Lourdes, close to the Pyrenees in southern France, attracts millions of visitors each year and has been a place of pilgrimage since St. Bernadette Soubirous reported the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary while gathering firewood in February 1858. It is recognized as a place of healing.
The members of the Warriors to Lourdes group are diverse and traveled on the journey for different reasons. Thorp said she wished to honor the memory of her late husband, who was unable to complete the journey with her. Father Bristol said he was there to offer prayers of thanksgiving for his vocation to the priesthood. Rose attended to show moral support for a friend and fellow pilgrim suffering from PTSD.
All were united in their desire to help each other and to share Christian fellowship. Thorp, a nurse, contributed her medical expertise to help U.S. and international teams care for wounded veterans on their travels. Father Bristol wanted to be there to minister as a priest to his fellow shipmates, soldiers and airmen. Rose was there to lend his support to veterans suffering from PTSD.
“We all cry together. We all pray together. It’s so beautiful. We did the Stations today — it was pretty emotional for all of us,” said Thorp, following an opening Mass at St. Joseph’s Chapel across from the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Rose offered words of advice from Lourdes for fellow military veterans.
“If you’re having difficulties, find help,” he said, saying that no one should ever feel alone. “There are people that are willing to help out. Some of those people, from one standpoint or another, are willing to help out by just simply going with you to McDonald’s to have a cup of coffee and talk about last night’s TV program or football game.”
He urged people to care for veterans in their lives simply by interacting with them.
“Sometimes just having somebody to talk to about anything is a good thing,” he said. “If you are a family member or a friend and you notice a veteran’s behavior has changed, stick your nose in it and force the issue. Talk to them. You might find that, in doing so, you improve the quality of that individual’s life or prevent something tragic from happening.”
The travelers also found peace in visiting Lourdes with military members from around the world. Bristol called the experience “powerful.”
“It makes me proud to be an American veteran and a currently serving reservist,” he said. “It also shows a unity in our Catholic faith — that even though we’re from different countries and wear different uniforms, we are united in our faith in Jesus Christ and our love for Our Lady.”