By Chiara Santomiero
Rome, FEB. 2, 2010 (Zenit.org).- As the Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes association celebrates 125 years since its foundation, its president is noting that some 40,000 volunteers have served with them in that time.
Antoine Tierny stated this to ZENIT while in Rome for an anniversary pilgrimage. About 100 of the association’s directors from various national chapters gathered last week for the Jan. 28 anniversary. The pilgrimage lasted several days and ended Friday.
“More than 40,000 volunteers from 70 countries of the five continents have had a turn” to serve pilgrims in Lourdes through the association, Tierny said.
In the beginning the volunteers were mainly French, but now they come from all over the world. In 2008, 3,036 Italians served as volunteers, and 2,739 French. From the United States there were 471, from the United Kingdom 429, from Ireland 311, from Germany 252 and from Belgium 72.
Yet the foundation had a humble start in 1885, with only seven members, called “hospitaliers” in French, who gathered to help the sick and disabled that came to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
There has been a “notable evolution,” Tierny affirmed.
He described the experience of going with his coworkers to Benedict XVI’s general audience last Wednesday.
“It was very emotional,” the president said. “The Pope thanked us for wishing to celebrate our anniversary with him and we saw that he also was moved when we all stood up and sang the Ave Maria of Lourdes.”
The Holy Father gave a synthesis of his audience catechesis in various languages. At the end of his French address, he made a point of greeting Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes and the group of association members he accompanied to Rome.
The volunteers who join the association commit to facilitate pilgrimages to Lourdes, aid in the large celebrations there, and spread the message of Our Lady as transmitted to St. Bernadette.
Tierny stated, “Our greatest satisfaction is that in all this time, the sick pilgrims have felt well received in the Marian city thanks to our service, because we were born precisely with this objective.”
He noted that future challenges include being “up-to-date with the most delicate technical aspects of hospitality” and managing “the international nature of the association” so as to receive pilgrims ever better.”
The period of service with the association, called a stage, usually lasts 6-15 days. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, and for the first four years of involvement they have a training course twice a week.
Anna Maiani, who has worked for 35 years in the association, told ZENIT that when she started, the training program was only in French, and she had to translate for the Italian volunteers while another person translated for the Spanish speakers.
The program, she explained, aims to help volunteers “discover Lourdes” in terms of the spiritual side, not only as a place for physical aid. Maiani added that the formation teaches people about the “holy places of Bernadette, how she was born in Lourdes, and the history of a place that attracts multitudes of pilgrims every year.”
She stated that in all the years she has worked in Lourdes, the aspect that has stayed the same, “in addition to the Virgin and Bernadette, of course, is the enthusiasm of the volunteers who return year after year and, despite the exhaustion of the service, tell me: ‘We have come to recharge ourselves.'”
In Lourdes, Maiani said, “one forgets all family and work problems, which have even been with us on the trip; when one arrives, there is no time, there is solidarity, a familiar climate, a desire to do good that relegates all the rest to a second plane.”
She continued with a smile: “You know what my mother answered when my father grumbled because I came to Lourdes twice a year? ‘It’s true, but when she returns she is so good!'”
The volunteers work to serve tables in the dining rooms, clean the common areas, receive pilgrims in the railway station and the airport, and accompany the sick and disabled.
Marisette Goisenau is in charge of the “St. John the Baptist” service that accompanies pilgrims to the baths in the Lourdes pools, helping them to experience it as a spiritual journey.
She said: “I remind volunteers working in the pool that we need a supplement of love because people arrive with all their faith and hope and really are in need of feeling welcomed and loved. It is the sole criterion of our service and it is very important.”
Goisenau added, “Ours is a service in which emotions are strong and intense: Often the persons who come are very sick or seriously handicapped and yet they pray not for themselves but for others, and this is something extraordinary.”
She shared a favorite memory with ZENIT about “a father who took his little seven-year-old daughter who had not much time to live.”
With emotion, the volunteer recalled, “He took her to Our Lady of Lourdes because he knew that in a few days she would be receiving her and would be her mother forever.”
— — —
On the Net:
Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes: http://www.hospitalite-lourdes.com/