Peter Stockland

France pilgrims discover a world of difference

  • March 28, 2024

In a brief homily during Mass in the Miraculous Chapel of Rocamadour France, Father Tom Rosica posed a question that was hanging over the 12 visitors from Canada he was accompanying as their spiritual leader.

“What is the difference,” Fr. Rosica asked, “between a traveller and a pilgrim?”

His question was not the only thing looming over those present. The Chapel itself is built into the side of a massive cliff that squeezes down on its roof. At the top of the cliff is a medieval castle, which has been adding weight for most of the 1,000 years that cliff-side Rocamadour has been among the most important pilgrimage sites in France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was known to pop by, as were Charles IV and Louis XI. More than one mind over that millennium must have wondered, in the presence of Our Lady of Rocamadour (aka the Black Madonna), what miracle kept the cliff from crashing through the Chapel. There seemed something prescient in the answer Fr. Rosica supplied to his own query.

“A traveller passes through a place,” he said. “A place passes through a pilgrim.”

Fortunately, the cliff did not lose its place and pass through us. Something else, a propos of Fr. Rosica’s true meaning, definitely did. Its force was working throughout the whirlwind week we spent in early March on a part-visit/part pilgrimage to the multi-layered region of Occitanie via the good graces of Connaissance Travel and Tours, Air Canada, and the Occitanie tourism board.

“A pilgrimage is transformational, a change that is deeply interior,” Sr. Joan Campbell of the Sisters of St. Martha of PEI reflected when she and I compared travel notes on a Zoom call after our return to Canada. “I was surprised by something I really only learned on this pilgrimage: the experience of it was actually more profoundly felt after I returned home and was remembering things that happened. Tears will well up with a deep feeling of my spirit being touched – an acute awareness that God has touched me.”

Sr. Campbell compared the power of it to what she felt walking the Via Dolorosa during a Holy Land pilgrimage when she came to the Station of the Cross where Jesus meets his Mother. There, she felt the presence of her own late mother immediately at hand. It is, she says, of the heart in the way that Mary ponders all things in her heart.

Vincent Veerasuntharam, the president of Connaissance who was with us on the recent trip, said it’s a core belief of the company that while tour groups should experience the enjoyment of good food and engaging sites, the heart of pilgrimage is a commitment to the “fine details” such as daily Mass for spiritual growth.

“We believe in those commitments. That’s a key to success for our company as well. It’s a global marketplace with people everywhere looking for inner peace and spiritual wellness. So, a pilgrimage is a way to achieve both,” Veerasuntharam said.

The trip through Occitanie met that both/and criteria well. Inherently, it was a devotional journey through ancient places of the Faith combined with the relatively “newer” centre of sanctity that is Lourdes, which developed its attraction only after St. Bernadette’s miraculous encounter with Our Lady in 1858. But we were also on what the tourist industry calls a “fam” – or familiarization – voyage to introduce future pilgrimage leaders to the territory. An aim was to help them overcome the widespread misconception that Paris is France.

In fact, the 73,000 square kilometre administrative region of Occitanie, which sprawls across southern France from Avignon to Lourdes (east-west) and Rocamadour to the Spanish border (north-south), is almost dizzying in its topographical, historical, political, religious and even linguistic diversity. Its riches are deeply religious but also profoundly cultural.

The name Occitanie itself, adopted in a 2016 melding of the administrative regions of Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc, harkens back to the medieval era. It was an autonomous fiefdom centred in Toulouse where the dominant language was Occitan, which drew from Latin, Spanish and Catalan as much as French. 

To travel from Toulouse north to places such as Albi, Cahors and Rocamadour is to retrace the steps of the 12th and 13th century Troubadour poets, but also those of Catholic inquisitors tracking down heretics such as the Albigensians (centred in Albi) and the Cathars. It was a region imbued with what the great French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie described in his famous work Montaillou as a “passionate romantic community (where) high amorous passions or even sometimes ordinary ones could break forth and have free rein, a fact clearly expressed by Inquisition scribes eager to get their teeth” into heretics.

Liz Dachuk, the business development manager for Connaissance who made sure our tour buses left on time and arranged wakeup calls for potential late sleepers, said it’s vital for even those on pilgrimages to get their own teeth into current local secular culture whether through art, music, architecture, innovative businesses and especially food.

“There’s always a blend between spirituality and the cultural aspect of a place we visit,” Dachuk said. “How much of each depends on how much time we have at a particular place and how long the entire pilgrimage is. But it’s important as we journey along to visit some of the highlights other than spiritual places – for example, a vineyard in the afternoon for a wine tasting.”

The proof of that pudding was borne out exquisitely during a wine tasting dinner we were treated to at the Malbec Lounge in the city of Cahors where the fruit of the vine – numerous delicious variations of the Malbec grape – and the work of human hands demonstrated why Occitanie is renowned for its warm hospitality and its gastronomical delights.

In fact, such hospitality and warmth was ever-present throughout our travel/pilgrimage, Sr. Joan Campbell noted in our post-trip conversation. Hospitality, she said, is very much a Biblical word drawn from the Greek for love shown to strangers.

“We were strangers going there and we were offered so much hospitality by being welcomed to places through food, which was stunning, and through such care being shown toward us. I know it’s their business but at the same time, there was a very Biblical call to be people of hospitality. If we do something nice for our family and friends, that’s what the Bible calls loving kindness. But to do something for strangers, that’s hospitality in the true sense of the word.”

It was evident in those who attended to us in the stream of visit sites. It was there in the guides at historic venues, in the hotel managers and staff who greeted us at the doors of lodging places, and in a young woman who walked us through an extraordinary series of stalactite and stalagmite caves in the Dordogne Valley. Its exemplification was Fr. Bogdan Velyanyk, the parish priest at St. Sernin Basilica in Toulouse.

More than just showing us around, Fr. Valyanyk amicably, patiently and with hospitable pride explicated the Basilica’s evolution from its origins in 250 A.D. when the first Bishop of Toulouse, St. Saturnin, was literally dragged to the site while tied to a bull because he refused to pray to Roman gods. His shattered body was recovered by the small Christian community, and over time the church became renowned for its reliquaries.

I had visited St. Sernin’s two years previously on my own, wandering in like a peripatetic traveller during a brief side trip to Toulouse. I took pictures, read some information pamphlets, and passed on. Being there this March, absorbing Fr. Valyanyk’s delight in communicating his evident love for St. Sernin, was a different experience entirely. It was the distinction we remember from high school French between the verbs savoir and connaître.

Sr. Rosemary MacDonald, also of the Sisters of St. Martha of PEI, expressed the difference eloquently in a follow up e-mail to our trip.

“A pilgrimage is more than 'to know about' as expressed in French savoir,” she wrote.  “A pilgrimage is connaitre, which means ‘to know by experience.’A pilgrimage appeals  to me because it deepens my relationship with God, I am transformed in some way that has the potential to continue to change me, not just during the experience, but afterwards as I further ponder it.”

Sr. MacDonald, undoubtedly reflecting the thoughts of the group, said she was particularly touched by Fr. Valyanyk’s “gentle nature” as he guided us through St. Sernin and offered an interpretation of its awe-inspiring Romanesque architecture. Yet he also gave us pilgrims space to find our own meaning. At the conclusion of the tour, he drew the two Sisters of St. Martha of PEI aside and gave them the opportunity to touch a relic tip of Christ’s Crown of Thorns.

“It was,” Sr. MacDonald wrote, “an extra blessing.”

We traveller-pilgrims were blessed to end our trip to Occitanie at its far southwestern edge in Lourdes. To move in any Catholic circles is to have Lourdes as a familiar conversational reference point. Yet I’ve always gone into “wake me when this part’s over” mode if it came up. If it isn’t the Miracle at Cana or the Loaves and Fishes, I have a hard time dialling in to a lot of saintly convos. Let’s just say, 19th century hubbub even about Our Lady has tended to go past me. The closest I’d ever come to feeling reverential about Lourdes was listening to the beautiful joyful sadness of Leonard Cohen’s Song of Bernadette.

There was a child named Bernadette.

I heard her story long ago.

She met the Queen of Heaven once.

And kept the vision in her soul….

In fact, as Canada’s great spiritual troubadour doubtless knew, young Bernadette Soubirous met “the beautiful lady” who was the mother of Jesus not once but 18 times between February and July,1858.

I, hagiographical ignoramus that I am, did not know it. And when we first arrived in Lourdes, even those haunting words couldn’t keep the reverence in my soul. As a city, at first superficial blush, Lourdes seemed to me to possess a kind of visual craziness to it, which turns out to be perfectly fitting. Bernadette herself was initially dismissed as gaga-babba and told to keep her miraculous meeting to herself.

Neither “savoir” not “connaitre” knowledge could free me from feeling that I’d landed in Papist Disneyland. I kept wondering if St. Bernadette’s secular doppelganger was St. Snow White. The neighbourhood adjacent to Lourdes Cathedral grounds is a square block of Catholic kitsch shops. It features, for example, take-home statues of the Blessed Mother enveloped in mummy-like plastic wrapping. Even the foot paths leading up to the entrances of the Cathedral left me expecting the Big Thunder Railroad trains of Disney’s Magic Kingdom to come swooping by.

Then we met Sr. Christina Swamy. The Sister of St. Joseph of Tarbes is not tall enough to get onto many rides at Disney – or anywhere else. She has the bright, endearing eyes of a beloved animated character, and the energy to match the irrepressible illumination of her face. But she spent 30 years working as a Sister among the tribal groups of her native India before coming to Lourdes a year ago. In the gentlest, laughter inflected tone imaginable, she employed the guided tour to give us a vision of life radically different from the iPhone infested existences most of us lead.

“Gadgets mean nothing,” she said. “Think of the people who have nothing.”

It was a message that passed through us all as we made our pilgrim way around what might be called the “Bernadette precinct” of Lourdes. We stood crowded into the tiny, squalid single room of the former city jail where the whole family, after suffering a radical financial reversal, were forced to live for years. It was from that barely 200-foot square of despair that Bernadette ventured out with friends to gather firewood on the day she first met Our Lady.

“The first prayer Our Lady taught us was the sign of the Cross,” Sr. Swamy said. “When we look at our families, do we see how blessed we are? Think of how blessed we are just to be present here. Let us thank God for that.”

To hear those words spoken where a saint once lived, to have travelled there as a pilgrim, was to begin to know the story of the child named Bernadette. But more, much more it was to be touched by a vivid connaissance of the very suffering humility that invited a miraculous encounter with the Mother of God.

Savoir. Connaissance. Traveller. Pilgrim. Words of sameness. A whole world of difference.

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