It’s been a very strange and emotional week in the Spence household, we’ve had birthdays, deaths and the first Holy Communion of our youngest child.
It’s funny because every time Gabriel does something for the first time, whether it’s a communion, starting a new school year or any other of a plethora of ‘firsts’ my wife and I reflect that it will be the last time we are doing it as parents.
We are seeing our youngest son growing up knowing that we won’t be having that shared experience of a first, whatever it is, ever again with one of our children.
Believe me it’s difficult even to type this sort of stuff but I’m certain that it’s no different from the feelings and emotions of countless, very early middle aged parents up and down the country (my wife says I’m not allowed to term us middle aged just yet, hence the presence of ‘very early’)
So, as I’m sure you will appreciate as I’ve surfed the internet this week, as I am occasionally found doing, my mind has been set on my past.
All of this led me to coming across the annual calendar of pilgrimages visiting the shrine of Lourdes, and further led me to remember that we are very fast approaching the peak season of a few short weeks every July when most of the diocesan pilgrimages from around Britain make their annual trek to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Before anyone starts writing in, diocesan pilgrimages are very particular things, I know that there are a few that visit outside of this peak season.
Lourdes is a very special place to me. When I was a teenager I visited the shrine with my own diocesan pilgrimage of Nottingham and after the week was over I kept going back.
I went to Lourdes with my diocese every year even at one stage becoming Deputy Chief Brancadier, I still have the badge to prove it. Then I started going to Lourdes at Easter to work for the hospitalite at the station, at ceremonies and in the baths. At one stage I even spent the whole of the summer working with that wonderful charity HCPT at their centre Hosanna House in the village of Bartres.
Just like many other couples I met my wife in Lourdes, it was the first ‘holiday’ we took all of our children on, I even – much to my wife’s annoyance – went to do a stage just a couple of days after our second child was born.
Lourdes was my life. And then it stopped.
Other priorities such as jobs, bills and health took over and until last summer we hadn’t been back to visit Our Lady for a very long time.
Now I am sure you have noticed that this column is usually about politics and so why, I hear you ask, am I writing about a small market town, with an international scale pilgrimage business in the French Haut Pyrenees?
The truth is this I have never encountered anywhere the better epitomises all that is terribly wrong and gloriously right about politics than Lourdes.
Lourdes can demonstrate the notion of politics in its very worst light. Take an organisation as startlingly bureaucratic as the Hospitalite Notre Dame de Lourdes, the body responsible for organising volunteers, add in a language barrier encompassing French, Italian and English and then a small measure of knowing how to do things better, an ever present in every voluntary group I have ever seen, and you have the perfect recipe for all that is wrong with politics.
I lost count very early on of the number of fulsome arguments I have heard about how a procession can be run better, I have heard and been part of passionate arguments about whether pilgrims should be ‘snaked’ or ‘funneled’, I have seen first-hand how making someone a team leader or a chef makes them extremely important and can on rare occasions bring with it a ‘don’t you know who I am’ persona that would easily surpass that of all but the most haughty minister of state.
Lourdes can make a Labour Party constituency meeting look the most harmonious thing in the world, and if you have ever experienced one of those you will know just how bad the organisation of the shrine can be.
The politics of Lourdes can be the most negative and off-putting feature of the town, it’s probably why I didn’t return for so long.
When I did go back however it wasn’t that aspect that I remembered but the beauty of why people go and the astonishing good work that is done there.
I have never encountered anywhere that is more truly egalitarian. People go to Lourdes from all over the world first and foremost as pilgrims. Some will work in the baths, some will be pushed in wheelchairs to services and some will merely arrive as part of a coach trip but all will congregate at the services and not least afterwards in the cafes.
Lourdes brings people, young and old, disabled or able-bodied, rich and poor together. No one ever judges you where you come from, what you do for a living or what type of house you live in. The fact is you are there, in Lourdes, on a shared experience of faith and everyone is accepted.
When I used to visit the shrine very regularly I always used to say that I didn’t know and didn’t really care whether Our Lady actually appeared in the grotto. I still don’t know and I still really don’t care.
Finding a mountain spring wasn’t the true miracle of Lourdes, the catalogue of miraculous cures isn’t even the most special thing.
The true miracle is to see pilgrims arrive on a Friday isolated, down and being on the fringe of society and leave the following week uplifted accepted and playing just as vital a role in a community as anyone else.
I’m fairly certain that a great many of the people I worked with in Lourdes were back home Tories, Liberals and of every other political persuasion. What their party politics was did not matter we were all there with the same goal of a shared experience and a shared opportunity to make everyone’s pilgrimage special.
That sort of experience is why I always try not to denigrate other political parties. People are essentially good, whilst our views differ our nature remains the same.
I love Lourdes and all of the experiences I have had there, it has been very good to me and one day I very much hope to return. But a little bit of the spirit of Lourdes is always with me, that acceptance and faith in human nature is overwhelmingly why I first became involved in politics.
Quite a few politicians and political activists may be very well served by a visit to the grotto of massabielle and all that Lourdes teaches us.