2013-02-11 Vatican Radio(Vatican Radio) The Church's World Day of Sick on February 11th is celebrated on the anniversary of the date of the first apparition of our Lady to St. Bernadette in a cave just outside Lourdes in 1858. The French town has since become one of the major pilgrimage destinations in the world with millions of people suffering from sickness or disabilities travelling there every year.
But why is Lourdes such a special shrine and what makes people return there year after year? To find out more, Vatican Radio's Susy Hodges spoke to Philip Sparke, Chief Executive of the HCPT pilgrimage trust, a Catholic charity that takes thousands of adults and children to Lourdes each year.
Listen to the extended interview with Philip Sparke:
Sparke says going to Lourdes is a powerful life-changing experience for many of the disabled and sick pilgrims they accompany there each year who finally get to feel that they really are part of the human family and society. He says "that's because many of these people spend a lot of the time in their day-to-day lives on the edge, feeling a little bit excluded" and by going on these pilgrimages "it could be the first time they've ever really joined in with anything in their lives." Sparke describes watching these pilgrims gradually open out and join in with the singing or other activities during the pilgrimages as "the most powerful feeling I've ever encountered."
Sparke says the feedback they receive from the people who go to Lourdes makes clear why these pilgrimages "mean so much" to them. He talks of the life-long friendships that are sometimes forged and how one 12 year old boy with disabilities described to them his own experience of going to Lourdes after initially being very reluctant to take part: "It was amazing, I loved it, I've never been so happy, it changed my life and I'm so much more confident."