U.S. Catholics encounter fraternity, healing in annual military pilgrimage to Lourdes

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MILITARY PILGRIMAGE LOURDES SANCTUARY
English speaking militaries attend morning Mass at the Grotto in Lourdes, France, May 14, 2022. (OSV News photo/Tamino Petelinsek, courtesy Knights of Columbus)

(OSV News) — Surrounded by almost 15,000 military personnel from around the world, Airman 1st Class Quenton Cooper felt a deep sense of fraternity during a May 24-26 pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.

Cooper was one of 183 American pilgrims who journeyed to Lourdes for the annual International Military Pilgrimage.

Every year since 1958, the French army has invited soldiers from across the world to come together for three days of festivities, prayer, and fraternity in Lourdes, the frequented pilgrimage site where Mary is believed to have appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.

Spiritual growth and community

“This trip has bolstered my spiritual life because it has reminded me that I’m not alone in my prayer life and that the church is not just located in one country, but it’s a community that extends all over the world,” Cooper told OSV News. “It is this reminder that no matter who we are, we need to thrive, and God will put us in. He will always put us where he needs us to help others grow in their faith.”

Known for its healing miracles, Lourdes is often frequented by pilgrims seeking either physical, spiritual or mental healing. Thus, the weekend pilgrimage places a special emphasis on healing, military chaplain Father Philip O’Neill told OSV News.

Military members from over 40 nations gather in prayer for the Marian procession during the 62nd International Military Pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, May 14, 2022. (OSV News photo/Tamino Petelinsek, courtesy Knights of Columbus)

“The message of Our Lady of Lourdes is to come for the sake of healing, which is a message that resonated in the assembly,” said Father O’Neill, a U.S. Air Force chaplain with the rank of captain who is currently based in Germany. “We have so many of our veterans who bear the historic scars of war, and to have them all brought together at the foot of the altar to have them brought to the healing waters of Lourdes really was profound.”

Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage

For over 20 years, the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services have co-sponsored the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage, bringing both active-duty service members and veterans from across the world to seek healing through the pilgrimage.

Retired U.S. Col. Paul Zeternick made his first Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage in 2013. Moved by the experience, he has returned year after year and now serves as a team leader, helping to organize the trip.

“Lourdes is a great place of peace, and this pilgrimage is a time to reflect on who you are, what you’re doing, and where you need to grow,” Zeternick said. “Every time I have attended the pilgrimage, I have experienced growth both as a pilgrim and now as a team leader.”

Now, as a team leader, the most impactful moments of each pilgrimage are witnessing the participants encounter the Lord’s healing touch and experience his merciful love.

“We’ve been offering a special program addressing moral injury, where we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder and how there are different techniques and methods towards healing,” Zeternick said. “We also emphasize how the Catholic faith, through the sacrament of reconciliation, is so important in moving forward with the healing process.”

Fraternity with the global church

But the pilgrimage offers more than healing and a spiritual encounter; it provides the opportunity for participants to experience fraternity with the global church.

“In my experience, when military personnel come together with soldiers from other nations, which we do frequently, it is when we are training for war. We engage in the shared practice of warfare, shared strategies, and growth in our abilities,” said Father O’Neill.

He said, “As far as I know, this is the only event of its kind where members from so many different countries come together in the name of peace, prayer and healing.”

U.S. military members of the Warriors to Lourdes program in an undated photo pose on the steps of the Rosary Basilica at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France with Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, center, and Bishop Scott McCaig, head of the Military Ordinariate of Canada (with beard). (OSV News photo/Tamino Petelinsek, courtesy Knights of Columbus)

These fraternal moments were daily occurrences as service members from different countries would sit at cafes and drink coffee or have a meal together, sharing their military and faith experiences.

“What you see on the streets of Lourdes over the course of this week is an incredible fraternity,” Father O’Neill said. “We not only gather to pray and go through the liturgies and the rituals, but we are also there to be together. You’ll see service members from every country having coffee or dinner together, sharing a beer or wine. It is a wonderful, incredibly uplifting sight.”

Solidarity with Ukrainian troops

Perhaps the greatest sign of fraternity and unity was the reaction toward Ukrainian troops present at the pilgrimage. Throughout the week, the pilgrims encountered soldiers who traveled from the front lines in Ukraine to seek healing and pray for peace at Lourdes.

“We had many Ukrainian troops at the pilgrimage as well,” said Father O’Neill, who is also a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut. “They received special sympathy and support and became something like minor celebrities. I think everybody was greeting and saluting the Ukrainians throughout the three days, and during the opening and closing ceremonies. When all the flags were marched through the basilica, everybody was clapping and cheering as the Ukrainian flag was processed in.”

Witnessing the Ukrainian soldiers’ faith and devotion left an impression on the other pilgrims, such as Cooper, reminding them that God triumphs over evil.

“I wasn’t expecting to see Ukrainian troops, but their presence at the pilgrimage reminded me that no matter what you’re experiencing, God is the ultimate defender and peacekeeper, and without him we cannot triumph over evil,” Cooper said.

Opportunities for Catholic fraternity are often hard to come by in the military, yet they are essential to developing a healthy spiritual life. This reality makes the trip an important opportunity for Catholics serving in the military to go on pilgrimage together.

“As warriors, we go into dangerous places and experience things together, and it creates a very tight bond among us, and it is always painful for us to see another brother in arms or sister in arms suffering,” Zeternick said. “Being able to come together as one body, one universal church, is absolutely tremendous. To have military members from so many nations in the world all bending their knees to God together and worshipping him is truly inspiring.”

Continuing the journey of faith

As Cooper returns to Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany, he hopes to rely on the fraternity he formed during the trip and seeks to be a living witness to faith in Jesus Christ.

“The fraternity here has been a great reminder to live out my faith in my workplace by setting a good example of what it means to be a Catholic man through my actions and how I treat people,” Cooper said. “As I return, I hope to set a better, more visible example of what it means to be a Catholic.”

Zeternick hopes that participants will remember the peace and charity they witnessed throughout the pilgrimage and remember that the Lord is capable of healing all wounds.

“This pilgrimage is a beautiful opportunity for different countries to come together in peace, to celebrate our Lord together, to celebrate the miracles of the Lord, and to pass on that opportunity of healing to our soldiers that are suffering,” Zeternick said. “It’s an absolutely important and critical event for these men and women to come together as a church in prayer.”

Jack Figge

Jack Figge has written for multiple diocesan papers, including covering World Youth Day 2023 for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. In addition to his local coverage, he has written for the National Catholic Register, FOCUS and Catholic Vote.