'On the March' with the International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes

18L 5925 The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes ahead of the International Military Pilgrimage, May 2019. | Knights of Columbus

Over 12,000 soldiers from over 40 countries are set to arrive in Lourdes, France on Friday as part of the 61st Annual International Military Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage goes throughout the weekend before concluding on Sunday.

The International Military Pilgrimage, known as the PMI [Pèlerinage Militaire International] first began in 1958, the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparition at Lourdes. The theme of this year's pilgrimage is Cherche la Paix et poursuis-la, "seek peace and pursue it."

The pilgrimage programme includes Masses in a variety of languages, sporting programs for military members, and a candlelit Marian procession. Pilgrims will also visit the baths near the Lourdes Grotto.

Throughout the weekend, military bands parade through the streets of Lourdes, and the soldiers from different nations are encouraged to interact and get to know one another.

A total of 220 pilgrims, including 51 battle-wounded soldiers and veterans, and 72 "warrior pilgrims," are part of the U.S. delegation, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese for the Military Services. This is the sixth year the Knights of Columbus has conducted the "Warriors to Lourdes" program.

Fr. Jeff Laible, a chaplain of the U.S. Air Force, has joined the Knights of Columbus pilgrimage for five of those years. This year, he is serving as the group's spiritual director.

"The pilgrimage really is an opportunity for our wounded warriors to receive healing, and healing really comes in a lot of ways," Laible said.

The chaplain said the pilgrimage gives him the chance to share in the "experience the peace and the grace of healing that comes here at Lourdes" alongside the servicemen and women.

"It's a special place for me. Like the warriors who come here, I myself have served on deployment. So I've experienced the grace and peace of healing--not only myself personally, but working with our wounded warriors over the course of the past four years, and certainly this year as well."

Bishop Joseph L. Coffey, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, is also part of this year's Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage.

Coffey told CNA that while has been to Lourdes twice before, they were quick trips and not an extended pilgrimage. He said he is looking forward to "really, truly living the pilgrim experience here."

Part of the pilgrim experience includes healing in different ways.

While Lourdes is famous for its numerous miraculous physical cures, Coffey explained to CNA that even more important is the spiritual health of the pilgrims, especially military pilgrims, many of whom have experienced mental or moral wounds during their time in service.

"Of course, some of [the pilgrims] have been injured, wounded, and this is a great place to seek healing--not only physical healing, which is what always people probably think of first, but what's so much more important is the spiritual healing," said Coffey.

"Because we all get old and sick and die some day, whereas our souls will live forever. So we want to be making sure that we have any good spiritual healing that we might need."

The still newly-consecrated Coffey - he was made a bishop in March -  describes himself as a "baby bishop." Shortly after Coffey's appointment was announced, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, asked him to go to Lourdes in his place. Coffey said he was overjoyed to start his episcopal ministry with such a trip.

"I was absolutely thrilled and honored that he would ask me to do that."

More in Europe

As a Navy chaplain on active duty for the past 18 and a half years, Coffey told CNA that he had hoped to attend this pilgrimage in past years, but had been unable to do so as he had been stationed overseas. He thinks that the PMI is an opportunity to seek the graces necessary to serve the military flock.

"This is really a wonderful way for me to begin this new period of my life, this new way of serving the Lord as a bishop," said Coffey. "I couldn't ask for better timing, to be able to come here just as I'm getting started as a bishop, to give me strength and courage to be a good bishop."

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