Paolo is a student in Part 4 in London. He volunteers at Lourdes every year in April for 12 days and, if he can, in July too. Born into a distinguished aristocratic Italian family, he was brought up between Rome, London, New York and Switzerland. Paolo initially worked in finance, and later joined the board of his family company. He fell in love with Lourdes.
MIRACLES AT LOURDES
Paolo Costantino, London
Lourdes is a small town located in the French Pyrenees. Had it not been for a specific series of events it would have remained largely unknown. In 1858 between February 11th and July 16th the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times to a small illiterate girl called Bernadette Soubirous, speaking to her. After that, Lourdes was never the same.
I went to Lourdes for the first time in May 2003. A cousin of mine had been going for years, and my own search for deeper meaning in life were probably the two deciding factors. I did not know what to expect and the reality I found far exceeded my imagination and, in some ways, changed the way I looked at life in general.
The Hospitalité de Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL), founded in 1885, is a lay catholic association that manages the sanctuary and welcomes pilgrimages from all over the world. It is made up of 16,000 volunteers called ‘Hospitaliers’ who come at their own expense giving their time and support to pilgrims and sick alike who travel to Lourdes with their pilgrimages or individually. (There is also a small staff all year round who receive a salary.)
In order to be a hospitalier in Lourdes you have to register with the HNDL and do what is called a ‘stage’ (minimum 7 days once a year). The stages within the HNDL last 5 years during which time you receive spiritual, historical, and professional training and a lot of ‘on the job’ experience in different areas; you can serve at the railway station, at the airport, at the Grotto, at the Piscines (Baths), in the hospital or during the ceremonies that take place within the sanctuary and in the Basilica Pio X.
At the end of the fifth year, during a solemn mass and ceremony, you can decide to make a solemn pledge to the Virgin Mary whereby you commit to come to Lourdes at least once a year for 7 days for the rest of your natural life to help the sick.
Everyone, regardless of religious faith, gender or colour is welcome in the baths, but the hospitaliers in the sanctuary must be exclusively of Catholic faith. The love energy you feel there is pervasive and, as a hospitalier, it gives you the distinct feeling of belonging to a very special family whose primary purpose is to give emotional and spiritual love to those in need.
When I am there I serve in the baths; it is a unique place. The water of these baths comes directly from the Grotto where the Virgin Mary first appeared to Bernadette and is considered miraculous with amazing healing powers. People come to the baths for a variety of reasons as it is considered by many like a second baptism. They come for physical, emotional or mental healing, they come to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary, they come to renew their faith or nurture their spiritual beliefs and some come to find hope when all is lost.
When we serve in the baths, the emphasis is on the welcome we give. They will remember the first person they see when they come in. It will probably be a photo forever etched in their memories, hence a smile exuding love and compassion is paramount. Some of these visitors have waited years to come and due to financial or health reasons may never come back again. The purpose of our service is to help them live that moment in the best possible way for them.
There are 6 baths in the men’s side and 11 in the women’s side as the women are always more numerous than the men and take longer to prepare. There is a ‘Chef des Piscines’ (Baths Director) and six Hospitaliers for each Bath each wearing a long blue ‘Tablier’ (an apron) in order to protect their clothing from getting wet.
I am usually in charge of Bath No 1, which is primarily used for visitors coming in stretchers or wheelchairs. Some call us the ‘specialists’ as we have a particular knowledge on how to handle visitors affected by serious illnesses like paralysis, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, amputations…
But it is not because we know how to handle them physically that we serve in Bath 1; a very important part of our service is ‘to handle’ them emotionally. When we receive someone we have to do everything: undress him, wash him if needed (as we have to avoid impurities coming into contact with the water in the bath at all costs) and prepare him emotionally, physically and spiritually for the experience he is about to undertake. Often they cannot communicate hence our ability to convey our message to them at all stages of the preparation.
Once he is ready and his prayers and intentions (should he have any) have been taken care of, we take our visitor down into the bath with three hospitaliers on each side holding a special amphibious stretcher so that the stretcher he came in with is not touched or made wet.
The reaction with the cold water (about 12C) is always something we have to be careful about as it sometimes creates unexpected reactions. Once the bath is done we proceed to dress him again with each hospitalier performing the same ritual and role he did while undressing him in order to create the least discomfort for our visitor whilst maintaining a good speed in doing so.
What I often find so touching is that our visitors start apologizing for giving us so much work and hassles. It is not at all like that! We are the ones who are blessed for being able to do what we do for them and I often feel that we are the ones who should apologize to them for being healthy and so lucky!
In the last few years I have had to act as Baths Director, which means that I am not in the baths all the time doing what I love most. However, in the spirit of service, we do what is needed when is needed without discussion.
My service as Baths Director involves making sure that all the baths run smoothly and serve as support when things get complicated, keeping count of the number of visitors who come into the baths, making sure that first aid supplies, nappies and towels are always available. But as an upside, as Baths Director, I am able to put my apron on and do a tour of each bath on a regular basis to do ‘on the job’ training and remind volunteers how things are done to those who have forgotten; and that makes all the rest worthwhile.
I also get to train the newcomers! The training is usually about 90 mins long and there are around 20 people from different nationalities attending. The single most time-consuming factor is that I have to translate the training in four different languages so that everyone understands what is going on.
Being able to train the new generation of Hospitaliers is such a rewarding experience as you can tell so many things by the way they react to your input and ideas; you will be able to tell who is a natural and who is doing it because he thinks it is the right thing to do. The difference lies in the love he will exude towards the sick he will welcome.
Come January, I cannot wait to leave for Lourdes. Being there gives me such a strong feeling of inner peace and serenity as if all my worries are magically being turned away, even if only for a few days. It’s almost like a spiritual drug and, at times, this inner peace feels almost surreal; this is not something that one experiences every day of the year. In Lourdes, love is the natural state of things. The biggest gift for me is to see some unhappy person leave with an expression of joy plastered on their face.
We all have complicated/difficult lives and often, when all traditional avenues are exhausted, we turn to a higher power; some call it God, others call it that divine energy that makes up the universe and is within each one of us; to me it is a question of semantics as the two are the same. Love is the single most important force in both.
Miracles? I have never seen a miracle and I do not need to; I see miracles in Lourdes everyday in the way people’s regard changes after having been to the baths or after a passage in the Grotto.
For me it is a miracle to be able to go back year after year, being able to get up every morning smiling or being able to make someone’s life a little better. I guess the definition of miracle changes from person to person…
There is no middle ground with Lourdes; you either fall in love with it or you never feel the need to come back. For me it is a loving relationship that has gone on for the last 15 years and will go on for many more.