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Lourdes is a small town in the South of France where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette fourteen times. This year, to our delight, we managed to avoid the 26-hour coach journey and were lucky enough to fly to Lourdes. But as we ended up running through the airport in an attempt to not miss our flight, this probably worked out just as stressful as the coach journey; it’s fair to say the airport staff were not impressed.

Soon after we were settled in at our hotel and had some delicious food at hotel Eliseo (famous for their four course meals) we were eager to go and explore this wonderful town, where we found so much joy on the streets. Later that day, we had a chance to meet the pilgrims who we would be assisting for the week, as we helped to carry their luggage to their rooms. It was a good way of offering our services to begin the week. And then a short social time and an early night.

On our travels around Lourdes we soon got our bearings and one of the first places we decided to visit was a little cafe to catch up with friends we hadn't seen for a long time; the hustle and bustle of the airport meant we hadn’t had the opportunity so far.

After a number of masses and other services, including our Welcome Mass and the International Mass, our first visit to the Grotto didn’t arise until the third day after the rain had decided to clear up. Walking into the Grotto for the first time was an overwhelming experience. To see all the volunteers and pilgrims so in touch with their faith and so invested in this spectacular place was so moving, and to see all the youths from our diocese so calm and taken back was another reward in itself. It is as though as soon as you entered this ‘utopia,’ all your worries disappeared and you felt a sense of peace and tranquillity.

The community life of our diocese in Lourdes is another aspect of the experience in itself. If you’re avoiding coming to Lourdes because you imagine it to be an intense experience completely focused on God and all things holy, you’re wrong! There is an element of fun thrown in with the adventure. You may have seen some photos on social media displaying our diocese in some bizarre and crazy costumes; you were probably quite confused and thought, ‘well if it’s a pilgrimage, why they are dressed up like that?’ or, ‘no way did they go to the Grotto dressed like that’. Well, let me give you some answers to your confusion. On one of the first nights, the youth section holds a fancy dress party to get to know each other and to give everyone a chance to relax. The dress up night was definitely the night where everyone began to mingle and break down barriers, which made the experience of Lourdes a whole lot better. And for everything we did, we would always finish by thanking Our Lady for the things we have in our life to be grateful for, including the people we were surrounded by.

We won’t go on and on about the different things Lourdes has to offer because we think it’s best you see it for yourself, but if you want to know more about your faith, meet friends for life and have a fantastic trip away in a gorgeous town in France then Lourdes is the place for you. To be honest, if you’re undecided whether or not to come to Lourdes, we would 100% encourage you to listen to your heart and listen to what God is telling you to do, and we can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Read on to hear the experiences of three of our team who went to Lourdes this year:-

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Annie Hodgkinson, 18, Blackpool

The annual trip to Lourdes is different for everyone, and everyone experiences different emotions and everyone’s encounter with God varies. Although Lourdes had been at the back of my mind for years, I had never been to Lourdes until this year. For me personally, I found the pilgrimage very moving and touching. The spiritual experience I faced wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be. I felt like I should have felt this huge wave of God’s love as soon as I entered Lourdes, but I think that was me setting my expectations of Lourdes too high. As the week went on, I soon realised that, for me, to be able to grow closer to God doesn’t happen straight away and I had to allow time for God to enter into my heart. I think being surrounded by so much joy shining through the life-long friends I had met in Lourdes, definitely helped me to grow closer to God as they showed me what it means to have found God in my life. Even now, two months after Lourdes they are the friends I turn to in times of doubt or uncertainty and they guide me to do the right things and make the right choices. I now find it so easy to look for God through my friends and trust in him. The experience of Lourdes has given me so much confidence in God and so much confidence for my year ahead that I will be spending as a gap year volunteer at Castlerigg Manor, which I believe was God’s calling to me and this calling was strengthened even more in Lourdes.

The Grotto, I think, deserves a separate section of the blog for itself. It is such an immense atmosphere, in the best way possible, and I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it first-hand. I could sit and write for days about my experience in the Grotto and how I felt, but I believe words cannot do it justice. All I would like to say is that if you ever have the chance to visit Lourdes and the Grotto then GO! Lourdes is one of those places that you will always look back on and just feel the need to tell others about it and spread the word of how good God is!

Charley Harrison, 19, Blackpool

My experience in Lourdes is hard to describe in words. To say I went in blind was an understatement, I was so unsure of what to expect or what my first year would hold but from the moment I arrived, and I met all of the youth, I suddenly felt God’s presence and I knew that it was his plan for me to be in Lourdes. From the Grotto, to the community life, Lourdes has brought such happiness and joy into my life. The people you meet, both the youth and the pilgrims are people I will remember for life. I have met some of my closest, and most special friends while in Lourdes, and I know that God always being on my mind, I would never feel this close to him if I hadn’t trusted the voice in the back of my head, stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up for this Pilgrimage.

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I also never expected to feel so much joy in the presence of the pilgrims. Their stories and experiences in life are truly inspiring and our conversations are something I’ll never forget. I’ve always heard about the Grotto and how special it is to so many people, but I never thought I’d feel so moved just being there, with my own thoughts and prayers in the presence of Our Lady and surrounded by those who I now classed as my closest friends. Throughout the week, I felt myself and those around me grow in faith, while also growing in friendship with one another. Each of us filled with so much peace and happiness, it was almost too hard to hold back the tears of joy that we had for God and each other. I can’t even express how much my life has been changed by my week in Lourdes. I have developed such a trust for God, and I am so unbelievably grateful that he called me to volunteer for the Lourdes Pilgrimage. If you ever think to yourself, ‘should I go to Lourdes’ or ‘Maybe God is calling me to go,’ I promise you, he is. Going to Lourdes is the best choice I have ever made, and honestly I would not be sat here writing this, as a volunteer at Castlerigg Manor, if I hadn’t gone. Lourdes is now something which means a lot to me, and I’m already counting down the days till next year.

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Zoë Shirra, 18, Windermere

I have been to Lourdes with Lancaster Diocese for the last three years now and each time my experience has somehow managed to improve. Each time I visit Lourdes I have new experiences and make new memories that will last me a lifetime. For me my week in Lourdes each year is the highlight of my year and something I find myself counting down to every single year, even when I have only been home for a week afterwards.

During our time there, the youth spend so much time together. Not only do we sit and eat together, we also pray together and grow together. The friendships made in Lourdes are different to anything else because you all meet for the same reason under the common ground of the pilgrimage, you grow in friendship and faith together and this is something that we are lucky to experience together. Not only do you get to spend time with the other youth, you get to spend time with the pilgrims. The pilgrims are one of the main reasons we all journey to Lourdes, being able to sit with them and share stories is such a privilege because they have so many experiences that deserve to be listened to and every time I speak with them I learn amazing things about each of them. This is one of the most important parts of the Lourdes experience.

The Grotto is probably the most talked about area in Lourdes and that is with good reason. Every single time I walk round the Grotto I feel a sense of peace that is like no other feeling I have ever felt, this is such a safe space for prayer or even just reflecting on your day. I had everything planned for the next year travelling to Australia as an au-pair to look after children for 6 months, and then sight-seeing. My times of prayer in the Grotto changed my plan completely and inspired me to come here to Castlerigg for my gap year so I think it is safe to say that Lourdes has changed my life and it has certainly changed it for the better.

If you are even thinking about coming to Lourdes, just do it, you will never look back.