PARIS — After bidding a fond "au revoir" to Our Lady of Lourdes, the Marian pilgrims boarded a return train to Paris before dawn Thursday to get one last afternoon in the City of Lights.
They had time during the six-hour train ride to sleep, reflect on the graces given during their time in the little town tucked into the Pyrenees Mountains and to chart their plans for the final afternoon they would spend in France.
Most of them had a favorite church they wanted to revisit, an area of Paris they wanted to see, or an art gallery they had on their "must see" list to spend time at before attending Mass at the crypt church of Notre Dame des Champs, the first church they celebrated the Eucharist at at nine days ago when their pilgrimage began.
Exhausted from covering hundreds of miles on the ground throughout France at a breakneck pace, the pilgrims nonetheless took to the streets of Paris Thursday afternoon to make the most of their last day here.
Then, several hours later, they reassembled for a brisk walk to the church in the pouring rain to worship at Mass together one last time.
"Tonight, as we come together in what is our last Mass on this pilgrimage, we must give thanks," said Father Timothy Reid, the pilgrimage chaplain, during his homily.
"In particular, we give thanks to Our Lady. As St. Luke so noted, it is by Our Lady's hands that we receive so many marvelous graces. It is certainly by Providence that we come back here at the first place we had Mass when we started this pilgrimage ... It is a grace for us to be in Our Lady's church."
After Mass the group traveled by bus to a restaurant near the L'Opera for a farewell dinner. There was a great deal of laughter when they realized they would be enjoying some French fries as a part of the meal. The people of France take their "pommes frites" seriously and greatly enjoy them, so the pilgrims have had them on their menus at many of the restaurants they stopped at during the trip.
When asked about their experiences over the past 10 days, some pilgrims reflected on what meant most to them during this Marian pilgrimage.
"The bath (at Lourdes) was wonderful – Our Lady was truly present," shared Celeste Richards, who works as an registered nurse at a hospice in Huntersville. She was particularly looking forward to experiencing Lourdes, where so many people have been healed or received graces for their faith after encountering the healing waters there.
Richards continued, "I just thank her for all the gifts and graces...I got to sing to her! I went up to the gentleman who had been singing at the baths and asked him for the microphone, and he let me sing (the Ave Maria). Our group was out there, and it was a gift. I thank the Lord for that.
"I'm glad because it enhanced my faith, solidified my faith," added Richards, who is also professed as a secular Carmelite. "I feel it was even more special because our Carmelites were here."
Andrew Beckert, one of the younger pilgrims at 10 years of age, said he has had a great time traveling with his dad, his brother and his grandfather on the pilgrimage.
"I liked everything!" he said. "I liked Mont-Sainte-Michel a lot. I liked the church with the incorrupt bodies (Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Chapel)."
He's been trying authentic French food and enjoying the variety. "I had a chocolate tarte with chocolate and raspberries on top. It was my favorite dessert."
Fellow pilgrim Jack Staub, who is preparing to become a permanent deacon for the diocese, said, "This is one of those moments you will remember for the rest of your life."
His favorite place and moment?
"Lourdes. The baths. Reconciliation."
"I'm so glad I came," said his wife Susan. "The thing I came to realize was that I didn't choose to be here – I was invited to be here. I felt so special that Our Lady wanted us to be here. She wanted to give us some special graces.
"There is definitely a theme of water on this pilgrimage. We began with all the rain, the trip to Lourdes and the water again here (rain)."
Her favorite place?
"St. Peter's Church on Mont-Sainte-Michel. There was such warmth there, and I had some really great prayer time there. It was a very holy place."
She added, "I am so excited about the new friends in the saints I have made (on this pilgrimage)."
Tom Sanctis, who made the pilgrimage with his wife Teresa, is also in the permanent diaconate program.
"I met a priest in confession who told me I would come back (to Lourdes). He told me I need to come back for four days to really absorb it."
Sanctis also had a powerful experience at the baths in Lourdes.
"I felt the same rush of grace in the bath that I felt when I was being married. That was the same grace."
During his toast at the farewell dinner, Father Reid summed up the most important thing the pilgrims who made this journey in faith need to remember:
"We have been given great graces here. And the graces given on this pilgrimage are meant to be shared."
— SueAnn Howell, senior reporter
Come along with us on this virtual pilgrimage to France as we journey "to Jesus through Mary."
See more photos, learn about the people and places of the Church in France and the devotions they inspired and see the journey through the pilgrims' eyes: http://triptofrance.tumblr.com/