Thousands join pilgrimage

Story and photos by Dave Melancon
U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

More than 200 U.S. Army Europe Soldiers and family members joined thousands of pilgrims from all points of the globe during the 50th International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes, May 22 to 25.

The U.S. delegation included members of Catholic and other congregations from Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and Italy, the USAREUR Band and an honor guard from USAREUR’s 529th Military Police Company. The delegation also welcomed U.S. Air Force members from Ramstein and Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.

***image1***Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Military Archdiocese and Brig. Gen. Rusty Frutiger, USAREUR chief of staff, led the U.S. military contingent. This year marked the fourth time General Frutiger participated in the pilgrimage.

Located in the Pyrenees foothills near the French border with Spain, Lourdes is renowned as a place of healing for the sick. More than 5 million pilgrims and other visitors flock to the city annually, according to the town’s Web site.

The area came to the attention of the world when Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly, 14-year-old peasant girl, saw the first of 18 visions she reported of the Virgin Mary in the Grotto of Massabielle on the outskirts of Lourdes in 1885. During one of those
encounters, Bernadette was directed to a hidden underground stream. Shortly afterward, accounts of miraculous healing of the sick and infirm who bathed in the stream’s waters were reported.

Bernadette entered a convent in 1866 and was canonized in December 1933.
The International Military Pilgrimage, also known as the Pèlerinage Militaire International, traces its roots to World War II, when French Soldiers traveled to Lourdes to give thanks and to pray for peace. In December 1944, French, Soviet, Belgian, British and U.S. Soldiers gathered for a mass in the site’s Rosary Basilica.
A German Army chaplain, a former prisoner of war, was invited to attend a military pilgrimage in 1947. Since then, the numbers of Soldiers and participating nations have continued to increase.

The first official military pilgrimage took place in 1958 on the 100th anniversary of
St. Bernadette’s vision.This year’s three-day pilgrimage included morning and evening services; several official ceremonies in the Basilica of St. Pius X, the Salle Notre Dame and the Rosary Esplanade; and several official and unofficial military parades.

Members of the U.S. delegation walked and prayed at the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Some bathed in the grotto and others engaged in private prayer or confession.

“Lourdes provides the opportunity for the militaries from 160 countries to come together to better understand each other and to share their own cultural experiences as well as each other’s ways of life,” General Frutiger said. “It is absolutely critical for us to understand our allies and their ways of thinking. While they have the opportunity to grow spirit-ually, it also provides an opportunity to grow culturally with each other.”

As head of the U.S. military delegation, General Frutiger and his wife, Jan, participated alongside the other U.S. pilgrims, he said. They also attended receptions hosted by the president of Ireland and the British army chief of staff.
“Spending time with my wife and the Soldiers and their families in a setting away from our day-to-day routine was a personal highlight,” he added.

The Heidelberg-based USAREUR Band packed several performances into two days in its first trip to Lourdes, said trombonist Staff Sgt. Daniel Welch. The group’s first event was a 30-minute downtown concert, followed by a late-night performance with the French army band.

The next day included several performances by the band’s ensembles, capped by its Dixieland combo strolling through the city, he said, adding that the U.S. musicians were well received by fellow Soldiers and pilgrims.
“It was a unique opportunity to interact with other Soldier-musicians from around the world while representing the U.S. Army,” Sergeant Welch said. “We had many of our Soldiers posing for photos with the pilgrims or just having a conversation at a restaurant over dinner.”
Many of the pilgrimage events centered on the “Village des Artisans de Paix” in the Lourdes city center and outdoor market – a tent village that served as the site for
speeches, displays highlighting
military humanitarian missions and band concerts.
Sgt. Daniel Romero called his second visit to Lourdes a
medical and spiritual journey. The Joint Multinational Training Command protocol NCO was accompanied by his wife, Ilihana, and his parents, who traveled to Germany from San Antonio.
“Visiting the baths was the main thing we came here to do,” he said. “I have two herniated disks.”
“It was great to see all the
different countries here with the same concept: praying for peace,” Sergeant Romero said.
Several Soldier-to-Soldier gatherings accompanied the religious events. Sgt. Jake Brice, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux chaplain assistant, said he enjoyed getting to know other military members during patch- and insignia-swapping sessions.
“This was a great experience on a secular note. This was a great experience on a religious note,” he said. “It is a blessing to see nations come together not for war, not for training, not for battle, but to enjoy a special event that the Lord has given us.”

Sergeant Brice was among 60 Soldiers and family members from his community who traveled 14 hours by bus to take part in the pilgrimage. A recently confirmed Catholic, Sergeant Brice said this was his second journey to the town’s sacred shrines and sites.

Sergeant Brice called cadence for the Army-Air Force contingent in Friday’s opening procession, a 35-minute military parade through the city to a mass military formation at the Basilica of St. Pius X.

The sergeant compared the procession of bands, color guards and military pilgrims from 36 countries representing NATO, Africa, Korea and Eastern Europe to a World War II liberation parade.

“The people were just cheering and cheering as we were marching down these small streets,” he said. “It was amazing. I was very surprised at the positive response.”
“Lourdes is a wonderful setting for anyone to get in touch with their spirituality and just take some time away from our normal busy lives to slow down and ponder the wonders a place such as Lourdes has to offer,” General Frutiger said.