By Father Charles Vavonese
Sun Contributing Writer
A group from the Syracuse Diocese recently traveled to Lourdes, France for the 53rd annual international pilgrimage of the Order of Malta. Participating in the April 29 to May 3 pilgrimage were Father John Ahern, Mary Dwyer, Dr. Michael Fitzgerald, Margaret Fitzgerald, Joan Cincotta and Father Charles Vavonese.
Approximately 10,000 people from 35 different countries – Knights and Dames, volunteers and pilgrims – went, as is tradition, to care for 1,400 malades (the French word for a person who is sick). People came from all over the globe, including some from as far away as Chile, the Philippines, Senegal and Australia.
Three chartered jumbo jets of Americans representing the three associations of the Order of Malta in the U.S. made the journey to Lourdes this year. Each plane included Knights and Dames of Malta, volunteers, a cadre of doctors and nurses, and malades and their families.
Activities in which the malades and pilgrims participated included daily Mass — each day at a different church — trips to the healing baths in the water which Our Lady pointed out to St. Bernadette during one of her apparitions, reception of the Sacrament of the Sick, Stations of the Cross, blessing of the sick, Eucharistic procession as well as frequent trips to the grotto for prayer. For many, the most memorable event of the pilgrimage was the torch-light procession which was several miles long and during which the participants recited the rosary and sang a number of Marian hymns including “The Lourdes Hymn.”
St. Joseph Hospital College of Nursing senior, Mary Dwyer, a first-time participant in the pilgrimage, stated that she was a member of a group of about 145 pilgrims which included several doctors and a staff of nurses along with Knights and Dames of Malta and volunteers. Each day a team of about eight people was assigned to a different malade and family. The team transported the malades with their families to and from religious services and activities in small carts designed for this purpose.
The team ate its meals with the malade and family and attended to any of their particular needs. The daily activities of the team were overseen by the physicians assigned to the team to ensure proper care for the malade.
Dame of Malta Joan Cincotta, a registered nurse and member of Holy Cross Parish, served as the Malade Coordinator for the 39 malades who accompanied the Federal Association, the association of the Order of Malta to which the Diocese of Syracuse belongs.
Reflecting on her many pilgrimages to Lourdes with the Order, Joan stated, “Lourdes is like being one step toward heaven.”
Father John Ahern remarked, “When attending the Pontifical and Mass on Sunday in viewing the overwhelming number of people from different nations represented, I was struck with a new understanding of the universality of the church. Watching the pilgrims interact each day with the malades and their families, I could not help but see a wonderful expression of the love of Christ made visible in a very concrete way by those participating in the pilgrimage.”
The official title of the Order of Malta is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. The origin of the organization dates back to around 1048.
Today, the Order is located in Rome, where it owns a palace and a villa.
The Order’s unique status as a religious order and a sovereign entity permits it to carry out its care of the sick and other humanitarian activities throughout the world. The Order has accredited diplomatic missions in more than 100 countries throughout the world. It maintains diplomatic relationships with the Holy See and the United Nations as well as many of its agencies.
On a personal note, the pilgrimage was for me a very moving spiritual experience. Thinking about just how profound an experience it had been for me, as I exited the charter flight in Baltimore, I said to myself, “If it is at all possible, I am going to make this pilgrimage again next year.”