Army members share spiritual experiences at the International Military Pilgrimage

Article / June 15, 2017 / Project number: 17-0155

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By Krysthle Poitras, Army Public Affairs

Lourdes, France — From May 19 to 21, 2017, more than 70 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members participated in the 59th International Military Pilgrimage (IMP) in Lourdes, France. They joined with over 40 nations’ militaries in prayer and in reconciliation to celebrate this year’s theme of “Dona Nobis Pacem”: Latin for “Give us Peace.”

Lourdes is a major pilgrimage site for Catholics where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in 1858.

This year’s theme is particularly relevant given that the event was founded by military chaplains following the Second World War. French and German military chaplains gathered Catholic soldiers who had fought on opposing sides at Our Lady’s Shrine in Lourdes to pray together for world peace and to reconcile as fellow Christians to begin healing past events.

In 1958, the Catholic Chaplaincy of the French Army opened the military pilgrimage to other nations who wanted to promote reconciliation and peace. From that point on, the IMP has continued to strengthen community spirit among nations, broaden the prayer for peace, intensify the spirituality of the militaries, and provide compassionate accompaniment to the wounded.

Master Corporal Susan Chalmers of the CAF said, “My experience in Lourdes is one that leaves me at a loss for words in many cases. I can’t always place words to match the feeling. It surpassed my expectations and provided me with life-changing experiences both spiritually and emotionally. The memories are forever in my heart and mind. One event, in particular, stands out to me: meeting a wounded warrior from Croatia. Witnessing how their military honours and respects their wounded soldiers, his inspiring story and his embracing of life despite the tragedy, spoke right to my heart.”

Although non-military pilgrimages to Lourdes often occur, the IMP is open to all faiths (although based on Catholicism) and is unique in its activities and the support it provides to CAF members and Veterans and those of other militaries. Notably, Canadian pilgrims joined with military pilgrims from Britain, Ireland and the United States in a morning mass at the grotto. The Canadian pilgrims also attended impressive opening and closing ceremonies where flag parties and marching bands from around the world paraded through the St-Pie X Basilica in a gathering of peace.

Major Joseph Gsell of the Royal Canadian Air Force said, “The 2017 Lourdes IMP will forever remain etched in my heart as one of the most beautiful experiences of my military career. Words cannot describe how much I have been morally and spiritually enriched by the infectious camaraderie that naturally exists between these military members from over 40 nations. Being able to pray all together in this beautiful place and to share our common spiritual quest in a world so lacking in spirituality, was one of the pillars of this pilgrimage’s success. To me, the IMP is above all an important opportunity to finally take time to reflect, find your bearings again and satisfy your need for spirituality, regardless of your religious beliefs. Thanks to this pilgrimage, my day-to-day life is now more serene. Being part of such a positive expression of camaraderie that knows no borders makes me feel more confident about the future."

One of the activities that showcased the comradery between nations, namely the sports challenge, was met with great success because of its festive, warm and playful atmosphere. The Canadian team was composed of 10 members, including a Lebanese participant taken into the team as he was the only representative of his country in the event. Quickly, the team became a united front, and all challenges, mental and physical, were met with endurance and perseverance.

Other activities included a candlelight procession that lit the evening streets of Lourdes to remember those who have fallen and those who have been injured physically or mentally and their families; a mass by the grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Saint Bernadette; and a visit to the pools of the sanctuary, where pilgrims can be dipped in holy water and take a moment to pray and be healed.

Corporal Brendan McKernan of the Canadian Army said, “This year’s IMP marked the 59th anniversary of the occasion and I was fortunate enough to be chosen to go to Lourdes, as a member of the Canadian delegation. The two sides of the event contrasted sharply yet came together seamlessly. The spiritual and religious side of our time there culminated with a visit to the baths of Lourdes. The sense of peace and calm after entering the water was unlike anything else I have every experienced. It was a truly powerful sensation shared by all who visited. The second side, the military presence, was beyond anything I had imagined. The sense of camaraderie felt between all nations was an incredible experience. During our stay, every soldier from every country belonged to this one event. Everybody had such variety in their experiences, lives and backgrounds, yet that is what brought us all together. There were no strangers, only friends we hadn’t met yet. We all formed bonds and made friendships that crossed time zones, borders and language barriers, and will be remembered for our entire lives.” 

The pilgrims came to Lourdes to find inner peace, rest and healing. Moments to reflect on their own lives and spirituality were much appreciated. The community spirit and opportunity to converse with fellow pilgrims offered solace and comfort.

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