Lourdes, world capital of hospitality

Lourdes, world capital of hospitality

If hospitality had to have a smell, it would be this: scents of incense enveloping everyone in its path, mingling with the puffs of woody air in the sanctuary. It is 5 p.m. at the end of June. Very close to the Gave, the river crossing Lourdes, the pilgrims begin the Eucharistic procession. Sick people and Spanish companions parade under the eyes of the other visitors, in a silence full of solicitude.

Where else but in Lourdes (Hautes-Pyrénées) could we see the millions of pilgrims expected this year looked upon with so much respect? Without them – suffering as helpers -, the Marian city would be no more. And what about this old lady who greets the crowd with a smile, like an Elizabeth II going up the streets of London? An air of majesty emanates from this suffering star installed in her carriage, a blue cart drawn by a woman hardly younger and with frail arms. Dressed in a white coat and a scarf tied on her head, the uniform of hospital workers, the latter pulls her load without expressing an ounce of weariness.

“A Disposition of the Heart”

This word, moreover, does not exist here. How else to explain the incredible dedication of those who return to serve each year? If the National Pilgrimage, which takes place from August 12 to 15, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, Georges Galavielle has been taking part in it for… seventy years, as a volunteer at the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Salut. A “family tradition” inherited from his grandfather, who was also hospitable. From the age of 7, Georges was in charge of buying postcards for the sick, or collecting straw used to remake the beds of travelers who came by train. Then the teenager became a stretcher-bearer, before taking up his service at the Notre-Dame reception as an adult. He earned the nickname “Monsieur Find-all”, as effective in locating a missing patient as in finding a lost suitcase. A commitment that lasts much more than four days a year for this inhabitant of the Hérault. This former specialized educator has put into practice his attachment to others throughout his career by helping young people in difficulty. “I was able to inspire them to overcome hardships by showing them that if people with disabilities could do it, they could do it too,” he explains. Like him, all those who cross the path of sick pilgrims come out shaken, grown, transformed. “Here there is a particular way of living one’s faith, a disposition of the heart at the service of the most fragile”, abounds Sophie de Ruffray, president of the Hospitality Notre-Dame de Salut. The “grace” of Lourdes…

The Footprint of the Pilgrims

The same spirit reigns outside the sanctuary. Because these suffering pilgrims leave their mark on their way. Most of the approximately 13,000 residents of Lourdes seem to have a memory to tell. Like Fabienne, this 67-year-old former jeweler working behind the counter of a small sandwich restaurant, rue de la Grotte, run by her daughter-in-law. Difficult for this Catholic, not really practicing, to put into words what she feels. But her face lights up behind her red glasses when she thinks back to this artist without arms or legs, whom she met forty years ago. “I saw her at work! She painted with her mouth,” she says in an admiring voice. Further down the shopping street, the manager of a shop says she is still upset by a little boy of barely 3 years old, with a completely burnt face. An image that remains anchored in his memory, thirty years later. “Sometimes I get mad at God! He doesn’t do enough miracles,” she exclaims.

receive more than give

He too would like to have more stories to tell. Henri Dausse, hospital within the archconfraternity of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, is responsible for the Saint-Joseph service, in other words the swimming pools. A few years ago, with other volunteers, he tried to bathe a young man in his twenties, who was severely handicapped. After several minutes without succeeding, he decides to give up, for fear of hurting the young pilgrim. Immediately, the latter turns his head, plants his eyes in those of Henri Dausse and smiles at him.

“My tears suddenly spurted out,” recalls the hospital worker. He stops for a moment, moved, before continuing: “He didn’t come out of the bath cured, but it was a miracle that he understood me. I have the impression of having received more than him, ”he slips.

A few steps from these famous baths, Father Emmanuel knows what he is talking about. In a warm voice, he evokes these people who give their time and discover the weaknesses or the prowess of the sick. “Often, the latter are elongated but happy, while able-bodied people feel sad. This spiritual elegance of sick pilgrims questions us. Yann Emmanuel, 39, experienced this reversal. Employed in the laundry of the hospital in Narbonne (Aude), he has just requested a one-year “provision” from his employer to join the permanence of the Christian Office for the Disabled (OCH) as a volunteer. “Anxious by nature, I feel in Lourdes a feeling of tranquility that I have never felt elsewhere,” he testifies. As a mestizo, I have experienced racism throughout my life. Here, valid or not, no one judges themselves and we look at each other with the heart. I like this respect that we grant to the other. It was in front of the cave that Georges Galavielle’s commitment changed on August 15, 2011. That day, he fell and was seriously injured. “I finished the pilgrimage in a small car,” he comments. Head to the hospital, where he will stay for many months. If he took time to evacuate his “anger” towards Mary, the now disabled pilgrim returned to Lourdes the following year. At the Notre-Dame Hospital, as a sick hospital worker, he slept with other sufferers and ate in the refectory with them. The opportunity to exercise his duty in a different way, for which he is committed “for life”. As soon as he meets a young person, he does not hesitate to testify to “the history of Lourdes” or to accompany him during the pilgrimage.

Everyone helps in their own way. For the Lourdes station master, pilgrims are much more than tourists. For three years, Jean-Jacques Soubercazes, sky blue shirt and navy blue pants in the colors of the SNCF, welcomes travelers on the platform. The railway worker is not there to greet them with a conventional “Welcome to Lourdes”, but to help them get out of the carriage safely. A task he began forty-eight hours earlier, the time to find the number of stretchers and chairs needed. Not always easy, for example when 1,000 pilgrims left Lille! The railwayman counts about a hundred pilgrim trains heading for Lourdes each year, not counting the classic convoys. With each arrival, the faith of these people pierces him. “Some come from Italy and take a two-day trip! he comments, impressed.

“Here, no more social etiquette”

A few kilometers from the station, the Cité Saint-Pierre overlooks the city. In 1955, Father Jean Rodhain, then Secretary General of Secours Catholique, created a place to welcome pilgrims after meeting a working family who had come from Paris for the day. Today, this green setting still allows pilgrims with a precarious lifestyle to find accommodation at a lower cost. This project particularly touches Guilhem O’Neill, the director of the place. “Simply put, these people bring meaning to our work. Here, everyone is accepted with their fragilities, there is no longer any social etiquette,” says the manager, while an employee of his team with an Italian accent, full of good nature, approaches. Riccardo, 58, left his native land to come and live in Lourdes. This former engineer is now a facilitator at the Cité Saint-Pierre. It is here that his faith was strengthened, there where he perceives in the other his “brother Jesus”, even among the most “pests” or “complicated”. These encounters touched him deeply: “Pilgrims think they have nothing to offer us when in fact they bring us a great deal. And if that was the secret of Lourdes hospitality?

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