It was around the third week of January 2011, during the jubilee felicitations of my dear friend Fr. Savio, while in casual conversation with Fr. Felix that he mentioned to me that the beatification of Pope John Paul II (JP II) had been announced. I shrieked with joy, which obviously surprised him as he knows me to be quite a fan of our present Pope Benedict XVI. Almost immediately the date for the beatification was confirmed by the Vatican viz., 1st May 2011
I knew I had my annual leave over Easter and considering that I was giving JP II quite a busy time during the past years, for petitions through his intercession and also praying for his speedy beatification I knew instantly that I wanted to be present in Rome for this historic and significant moment in the history of the Catholic Church. Every step of the way of this trip I have to say was a miracle...from trying to find affordable accommodation as close to Vatican City/St. Peters as possible, to my decision to travel onward to JP II's Birthplace, Wadowice, Poland and then my trip to Lourdes.
With 'subject to load' travel, my confused mind messing up dates for authorized Jump Seats and endless anxiety, I still got on the flight to Rome and flew despite an acute sinus attack and weird allergy reactions.. As I set out from Hongkong, I was blessed to be in very holy company having a Bishop from the Philippines seated next to me and he made interesting conversation thru the flight. So here was I in the one and only seat available for 'subject to load' passengers, on the flight to Rome. The flight you could tell had pilgrims from way Down-under, and even the Cardinals of Hong Kong and the Philippines were on board the same flight!!! How ecstatic was I?!!
Being a part of probably 1.5 million and more faithful in Rome on May 1st, which was also the feast of the Divine Mercy, was spiritually electrifying. I can say with certainty 1.5 million faithful, because within DAYS of the announcement of the beatifcation..ALL and I mean ALL, EVERY SINGLE hotel, hostel, "pension", guest house, religious run institutions, convents etc etc were sold out and fully booked!! I was all set to camp out at Via della Conciliazione or in St. Peter's square, (as many people did) if I wasn't going to find accommodation, but I still have to inaugurate that sleeping bag. Providence Divine! My very dear friend Angela, came to my rescue when her schedule miraculously worked out to fit in my travel and the beatification dates.
After a few winks, followed by a sumptuous lunch and another few winks, Angela & I headed for Circo Massimo to be part of the night vigil leading into the Beatification Ceremony. Circo Massimo was packed, how we squeezed our way into this huge open space featured in the famous chariot race in the movie Ben-Hur, heaven alone knows… It was a night of praise and worship; the luminous mysteries of the holy rosary were recited. While Circo Massimo was packed so was St. Peter's square and 5 or 6 other major basilicas and churches in Rome, where the rosary was prayed simultaneously… Just being part of this vast congregation was a very emotional moment.
John Paul II, died on 2nd April 2005 on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a devotion he strongly advocated, and hence it was so befitting that his beatification should take place on the feast of the Divine Mercy, Sunday May 1, 2011. Whilst making our way to St. Peter's, Angela and I saw many people turn back and return home as they were told it was impossible to make their way in. I was not yet prepared to give up, especially after my experience from during the Installation of Pope Benedict XVI. The crowds I experienced here were a million times more. The flash back of standing in the queues when Pope John Paul II died to pay homage before his funeral was nothing in comparison to this gathering. And I thought to myself, all this is a MIRACLE. We don't need another proof of miracle for his canonization. The presence of the Trinity unifying the church through the celebration of this Pope's life and death is indeed a testimony itself. I was choked with emotion and I couldn't help but cry and that had its ripple effect even though those around me were strangers, bonding together in faith, through the universality of the Catholic Church.
Bad weather was not going to dither the faithful, and the weatherman's forecast for the following day was in no way going to dampen the hearts and the spirit of the people who had travelled from different corners of the world to be in Rome for this solemn and holy occasion. And if I have to say again that miracles never cease, contrary to the predictions of the weather department, the first of May was a superbly bright sunny day. I am sure you would have watched the telecast live on television. After inching our way forward the closest we could get was a few feet away from the press enclosure...any further into the square would have disconnected me from the rest of the 1.5 million which I did not want. I wanted to again be a part of that same crowd when some few years back had cheered "Santo Subito". Today that cheer had become a reality. St. Peter's square itself was full viz. with Bishops, priests religious and even heads of state...Fr. Warner this is when I thought of you and prayed for you...The Pope IS Head of State, it is only fair then that the church be as actively involved in state affairs as possible. And so I do hope and pray that those who come up with frivolous criticism for the stance you take, think again.
The Eucharistic Celebration at which JP II was beatified was another moving experience. We are used to attending Sunday Mass with 300 to 400 others. But here was I with another Million people attending mass with Pope Benedict XVI as the main celebrant. The air was electric and one could actually TOUCH the faith of those present. Amidst, tears and cheers, chants and applause, the portrait of Pope John Paul II was unveiled announcing him Blessed...now just a step away from Sainthood. Italians and Poles rubbed shoulders with peoples from all over the world. The prayers of the faithful that morning definitely made me feel like I was close to heaven. During the three hour mass I was amazed at how every catholic present was able to receive with reverence Holy Communion and in the most orderly manner. When Holy Mass concluded with the final papal blessings and the choir sounding literally like a chorus of angels, the crowds dispersed so peacefully while some others made their way to St. Peter's Basilica to pray before the relic of Bl. JP II. In the orderly chaos and crowd I was able to establish contact and locate Fr. Wyman.
This high and overwhelmingly overwhelming feeling that I was experiencing was something I did not want to end anytime soon and thought it would be only befitting that I prolong it by also visiting his birthplace. And so the next day I packed my bags and moved on to Wadowice, Poland. I wonder whether if Rome was not in existence, would Poland have been the seat of Catholicism? It has the most beautiful churches and basilicas that do not wear a deserted look as I have witnessed in other parts of Europe, America and Australia. And wow!!!Do the Poles love their Pope?!?!?!Practically every single window in Krakow and Wadowice had a picture of JP II and the papal flag displayed. My stay in Poland was to be just two nights, but when I was stopped from taking a picture at the Divine Mercy sanctuary, I knew I had to come back to recite the Chaplet Of Mercy @1500hrs and which is telecast live online. (http://www.faustyna.pl/en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=520) I extended it to four nights and in doing so, I was blessed further with the opportunity to visit Auschwitz the largest concentration camp and where also St. Fr. Maximillan Kolbe a strong faithful devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who sacrificed his life in return for the freedom of a prison mate had been imprisoned and killed in what was known as the "starvation cell"
After my experience in Poland and Rome, I felt very close to JPII and I wanted to go to Lourdes a place that was close to his heart as was Fatima. When my May roster was published I was overjoyed at seeing a Paris flight on my schedule I knew I wanted to make that trip to Lourdes…which I had put off last year, when instead of Lourdes I visited Le Mont St. Michel.
The yearning for a pilgrimage to Lourdes had intensified especially since JP II had a special closeness and connection to the sick and even those who care for the sick. Lourdes, in France, is that place...where people of all beliefs and backgrounds go to for healing be it physical, emotional and even spiritual. I had already been to Lourdes some 11 years ago in the peak of winter and even then it had been a beautiful experience. I have to say I was shaken to my core this time around. Seeing the faith and hope in these people's eyes is in itself a miracle. Lourdes is this little quaint and quiet pilgrim town, is bustling with life and activity in the summers when most pilgrims begin to pour in especially after Easter.
On my arrival at Lourdes, with my non-Christian colleague and friend, Muhela, with no confirmed hotel reservation or for that matter clueless of where exactly we were to stay, and what we were to do, we ended up in a comfortably priced and ideally located Hotel Basilique. Two minutes from the Grotto. After using facebook to ask for suggestions about where and how to go about this pilgrimage of sorts, with a little over 24 hours, available, up until the time I reached the grotto I had no idea how I was going to go about this. (Thanks Lara for your suggestion even if I read it only after the procession) I have to admit, considering that I have so many priest friends, theirs was the company I missed out on here especially so when I would see groups of pilgrims accompanied by their parish priests.
But believing that the Trinity and Mother Mary will lead us, and following the advice of Fr. Savio we first went to the information counter. (This counter like all other places within the Shrine complex) is manned by volunteers…in fact if Lourdes "functions" in the manner it does, smooth, flawless and incident free, it is largely due to the band of devoted and dedicated volunteers who take it on themselves to make your pilgrimage a fruitful experience of the quiet presence of God. We were first ushered into an audio visual room, and the volunteer told us "Watch this then we will talk".
The video was on the story of Bernadette, St. Bernadette, to whom the Bl. Virgin Mary appeared 18 times at this Grotto in Lourdes, urging her to spread the message of "repentance, penance & conversion". She was the daughter of an ordinary miller, and in those difficult times that France was going through she was obviously and seriously doubted, even considered insane by the rest of the village folks. Even her own parish priest doubted her especially when she was asked by the Virgin Mary to wash herself in a muddy stream AND DRINK of the water…and also build a chapel at the very same spot. It is that very same stream that is now channelled through faucets and baths where believers and even non-believers come to, wash, bathe and even today are miraculously healed. After the Video presentation the volunteer suggested we attend the procession of the Blessed Sacrament which is preceded by the recitation of the Holy Rosary at the Grotto at 1530hrs.
And so at 1530hrs, we went to the grotto to pray the Rosary. For me as a 'Rozario' there seemed nothing better than praying the rosary at the very spot where our Blessed Mother appeared some 150 years ago. As a child, I had to be home from play by 7pm. This would upset me no end because 7pm in Bombay, is still broad day light. If we did not reach home in time… well that is another story altogether. But the reason my dad insisted we were home AT 7, was to pray the Angelus and the Rosary…I would grumble and sit through it. Now as an adult I think how blessed to bear the name Rozario and yet how unworthy. When I look back at the years rolled by, I realize that even though the rosaries I've recited are far fewer than the years I've lived, Mother Mary has never ever stopped Mothering me. Even more so since mum's passing away today 33 years ago.
The rosary is a repetitive prayer honouring the Virgin Mary through the reflection and contemplation of the Life of Her Son Jesus and Her involvement all through his life from his Conception, Birth through to his adult life and ministry and His Crucifixion and Death. In the heat of the afternoon sun, it is the volunteers who assist in bringing in the sick and invalid on wheelchairs to the open unshaded space directly in front of the Basilica. They stay with them through the rosary and procession which ends with the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in the huge, yet peaceful underground St. Pius sanctuary.
The day concludes with the candle light procession. And I cannot find words appropriate enough to describe this simple but intensely spiritual procession of thousandsssssssss, tens of thousands of incapacitated, handicapped, physically and mentally challenged, terminally ill, blind and sick, people being brought in by volunteers that bond with them. Where and how they all come streaming in and how the sanctuary has room and more for them and others is all a miracle!!!! I have new found increased respect for my wheelchair passengers. A change in perception and outlook, an acceptance of one's problems is a miracle too; it doesn't have to be tangible and physically visible. The rosary is prayed in different languages, and is no recorded version but live of peoples, of pilgrims of different nationalities present that is evidently unified in prayer through the sweet melodious chorus of AVE MARIA at the end of each decade, that I tried so hard to sing with tears running down my cheek and a voice choked with emotion. Truly, my description of this Candle Light procession is just so inadequate. But if you do have the opportunity to travel, then make the trip to Lourdes and don't miss the candle light procession praying the Rosary. It is so worthwhile. You must experience it yourself.
My friend and I sat in a daze till almost 0130hrs as the crowds slowly, very slowly faded away. You could tell that no one really wants to leave the sanctuary/grotto and hesitatingly almost unwillingly we too strolled back to our hotel for the night.
24th of May, feast of Mary Help of Christians...how so very fortunate I was to be at this Holy place AND be able to participate in Holy Mass in English...The sick and the ones in wheelchairs are truly the VIP's at Lourdes. And it is so heartening to see how they are given top priority and place any time in Lourdes. After mass the MUST do is the baths. Temperatures dropped drastically in comparison to the previous day but it is the faith, fervour and hope of people who wait in queues for their turn, to be dipped into these stone baths tubs of water invoking Mother Mary through the praying of the rosary for a cure, a miracle, a healing, a conversion of heart or even for a better understanding and acceptance of their situations and illnesses.
The highlight of it all for me was the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which only makes the act of the bath and physical cleansing by water so complete. If I were to give Jesus a face, it would be this priest I made my confession with…Serene, calm, welcoming, non-judgemental, EVER FORGIVING…and I wonder WHY do I shy from this one big moment of GRACE…of FORGIVENESS…If and only if I availed of this sacrament of reconciliation more often, I would be able to experience the forgiving love that JESUS, so freely and willingly gives. In gratitude for His forgiveness and in the spirit of true repentance I felt drawn to make the Way of the Cross...hurriedly then returning to the Grotto for by then it was time to say my final goodbye...and carry along this momentous, spiritually intense experience back to Paris, my colleagues and passengers and YOU.
An intense, solemn, fulfilling, moving and gratifying Marian month of May...I definitely feel mama Mary's constant presence and protection in my life and even closer to Jesus through her. I share these moments with you and I pray that you too may have such an experience at some time or the other in your life too.