Carrying physical and emotional baggage, U.S. military visit Lourdes

 Lourdes at night
Military members from 36 nations raise candles as others arrive in procession for a candlelight vigil at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France May 17. About 60 wounded U.S. military personnel, together with family members and caregivers, were a part of the annual International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


By Carol Glatz

About 60 retired or active duty U.S. military personnel packed their uniforms, flags, wheelchairs, canes and the inevitable emotional baggage of their daily struggles to take part in a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

While many of these men and women, who had been injured in some way in the line of duty, went to seek peace and healing from this sacred place, some said they also found enormous and unexpected blessings from the people they encountered on their journey.

The soldiers, together with family members or caregivers, took part in a "Warriors to Lourdes" pilgrimage, sponsored by the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Knights of Columbus. The Knights covered the costs for the wounded personnel for the weeklong encounter of prayer, healing and friendship. For many of them, the May 13-19 visit to Lourdes -- where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 -- was their first pilgrimage ever.

Kirsten Sippel-Klug, a physical therapist at the U.S. Army Health Clinic in Stuttgart, Germany, went on the pilgrimage as a volunteer to serve soldiers needing assistance. At first her idea was just to help others on their spiritual journey; she did not think much about her own.

She said she saw going to Lourdes as a service, a way to honor her very Catholic grandmother, and as a way to get a "jumpstart back to an active religious faith" after fighting stage 3 breast cancer. She said the language and cultural barriers at her local German parish have kept her from truly feeling a part of the faith community.

The pilgrimage "feels like a homecoming," she said, because she has been able to attend Mass in English, and she went to confession for the first time in 30 years. "The first thing the priest said to me was 'Welcome back,' which was a super-smart first line."

"Right now the door is open, I've stepped in and I have a lot of questions" about the church's teachings and how they stand up to her more science-oriented mindset.

"I'm your average lapsed Catholic and I'm so glad I did it. It's a beautiful way back into the church," she said. "I want to come back next year and keep coming back to serve" and reflect.

U.S. Army Maj. Derrick Mitchell said long deployments overseas mean spiritual life is "just you and God"; going to church and Scripture studies and discussions are nearly impossible.

Since he returned stateside, he's been seeking greater closeness to God with his church, and he saw the pilgrimage as an opportunity for "spiritual uplifting and renewal."

As a member of an African Methodist Episcopal church near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Mitchell said he was learning about the significance of lighting candles, the Eucharist and the veneration of Our Lady in Catholicism.

Though the rituals were unfamiliar and new, "the story behind it is the same," he said. "It's all about love and taking care of your brother."

 Military members at Lourdes
Military personnel stand at the grotto during a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France May 17. About 60 wounded U.S. military personnel, together with family members and caregivers, were a part of the annual International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

"In the military, we definitely believe in covering the other guy's back, looking out for him, just like Jesus believed that the stronger should look out for the weaker."

The warriors pilgrimage "has taught us about love and to (find) the good in the other no matter where you are" in life and what culture you belong to. "We all have that commonality."

Army Capt. Pamela Duggins, who served in Iraq, had seen the importance of a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims during her time in the Middle East. She said when a friend gave her a brochure about the "Warriors to Lourdes" event and she saw a religious pilgrimage "exists for Christians, I was like, 'Oh my God, seriously? I want to experience that.'"

"I wanted to renew my faith, and my faith is pretty strong, but sometimes you want to be around people who are seeking the same thing," said the officer, who retired to Arizona on medical disability.

She said she had come with a clear idea of what she wanted from God, but instead she "got something completely different."

"And what's so amazing is it turns out that ends up being exactly what I needed and you don't realize it at first because we're so busy thinking, 'No, this is what I want.'"

After talking to the many men and women on the trip who were going through even bigger challenges, "I wondered, 'Why was I complaining?'" Sharing stories and experiences, "you realize people have gone through the same thing and gotten through it."

Facing a string of difficulties, Duggins credits her Christian faith with keeping her alive and getting her through each day, "one day at a time."

Even though she's read about the Lord's Passion "thousands of times," taking part in the Way of the Cross procession in Lourdes, where "you see it laid out, stage by stage" before life-sized statues depicting Jesus' passion and death on the cross, really hit home for her, she said.

Referring to the crosses every person carries in life, she said Jesus "keeps telling us each and every day just to leave it, 'I got it. I got it.' And all we have to do is just turn around and leave it at the foot of the cross and he's going to take it all."

Lt. Col. Theresia Pawlowski, a U.S. Army officer of the Secretary of Defense working out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, said she hoped the pilgrimage would help the soldiers who are at a crossroads in their careers -- those who don't know yet whether their medical situations will lead them to early retirement or reassignment.

She was praying people learn to "not depend on their own strength and find out the will of God."



'Precious, but fragile'

"Peace is a precious, but fragile" treasure, Pope Francis said in a written message read aloud during the international opening ceremony in the underground Basilica of St. Pius X May 16.

"Soldiers have an irreplaceable role in building peace when they put themselves at the service of the people in guaranteeing order and restoring security," said the message, written and signed on behalf of the pope by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

The pope expressed his gratitude for the generous service of so many men and women and reminded them that "serving Christ inevitably leads us to serving peace, since it's in him that we become brothers and sisters, capable of dialogue and peace."

The unique international gathering of armed forces from sometimes warring nations at the sacred Marian shrine in southern France started after World War II when French, Russian, British, Belgian and U.S. soldiers celebrated Mass at the Rosary Basilica as part of a prayer for peace.

A German military chaplain and former prisoner of war was invited to attend the pilgrimage in 1947. And as more and more soldiers and countries began participating, the gathering became an official annual event in 1958 -- on the 100th year anniversary of the apparitions of Mary to St. Bernadette.

- Carol Glatz

Catholic News Service – May 20, 2014