To commemorate the 160th anniversary of the first Marian Apparition to Saint Bernadette the Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Colonel Christoph Graf led a contingent of 19 guards (including the Swiss Guard Chaplain) to Lourdes for the 60th Annual International Military Pilgrimage in May.

This year’s official pastoral theme was taken from the words of Mary at the Wedding Feast of Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). The theme seems to be directly aimed at the troop of men whose daily service for the pope involves prayerful obedience to God and to their superiors. 

Prayer is more than just a pillar of the institution of the Swiss Guard, as the Commander has said on many occasions, even referring to the Rosary as the guards’ “most powerful weapon” at the annual Swearing-In Ceremony on May 6 last year. What a blessing to be able to accompany my husband Dominic and the other guards to Lourdes and bear witness to the strengthening of their unit’s foundation in faith and prayer throughout this five-day pilgrimage. (Which turned into a six-day pilgrimage! There’s nothing like simultaneous French air traffic and rail strikes to throw a bit of drama into the mix.) We departed Lourdes exhausted but brimming with renewed joy and faith, ready to return to our duties and share the joy of our experiences in this place of peace and healing.

 

Day 1 (Thursday, May 17)

With Swiss precision we left the Guard barracks on Thursday at 4:45 a.m. and took a chartered flight with the troop of guards, two other Swiss Guard wives and two of their young boys. Also onboard were two of the five Albertine Sisters from Poland who prepare the guards’ daily meals, as well as many Vatican personnel and Italian pilgrims who had signed up with Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

I had a bit of déjà vu sitting on the plane next to Dominic for the Swiss Guard trip to Lourdes. The first time we sat together on a plane was on the 2013 Swiss Guard pilgrimage to Dominic’s home Canton of Graubünden in Switzerland. That probably had something to do with the fact that as secretary to the Swiss Guard commander, I did the seat assignments. I was so moved by the pilgrimage experience with the guards that I returned to Switzerland two weeks later for a spiritual retreat with cloistered Dominican nuns at the beautiful Walensee. I spent a relaxing week broken up with runs around the lake, and Dominic and I messaged each other continually with images of Saints Dominic and Catherine hovering over my bed in the convent. When I returned to Rome we went on our first date and the rest is history!

Anyway, back to Lourdes… Our first day flew, taking in the peaceful vibes of the Marian sanctuary town and my first experience of walking behind the guards as they marched through the narrow streets in their gala uniform. It was like walking around with 17 rock stars, everyone stopping to take photos and ask them for papal rosaries or to swap military patches and the like.

After the first daily Mass of our pilgrimage we visited the Grotto of Lourdes, famous for its healing powers. We moved in single file along the rock wall of the cave, sending up our prayers. Then the guards returned to formation in readiness for praying the Rosary in Italian, which was televised live.

After dinner we returned to the Grotto for a candle lighting ceremony at the Chapel of Light on the right bank of the Gave de Pau River. The Albertine Sisters of the Guard spent days decorating a human-size candle which was carried from Rome.

As the Guard Chaplain set it alight he encouraged us to bring light into the world and especially into dark realities, saying “just human light is not enough. We must bring the light of God. Pope Benedict said once that whoever does not bring God, does not bring enough. We have to expose our hearts to the light of God in the sacraments and bring this light to the world.” Beautiful words to ponder as we readied for bed.

We could still hear bus after bus of service personnel and pilgrims descending onto the tiny town and military bands marching up and down the streets until late in the evening and even into the early morning.

 

Day 2 (Friday, May 18)

Very early on Friday morning about half our group walked down to the Grotto to take a bath, a profound experience associated with many healings of the sick and disabled. Usually pilgrims are permitted into the baths only after the sick have bathed, but this morning I was extremely privileged to be the first to immerse myself in the freezing waters. There is an army of volunteers covering and assisting pilgrims during undressing and dressing and assisting people in and out of the baths. The four women who looked after me have nearly 80 years of combined service. We were all acutely aware of the long line of pilgrims and sick outside waiting to take their turn, but rather than hurrying me out when I was dressed, they stopped and prayed with me. I thanked them through tears for their long service to the Church and they responded that they are the ones who benefit the most. It was a very special morning with more blessings yet to come.

We attended Mass with the Swiss delegation celebrated by the former Swiss Guard Chaplain, Bishop Alain de Raemy. During his homily based on the daily Gospel (John 21:15-19) in which Jesus asked Simon Peter three times, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?', Bishop de Raemy talked of two different types of love. After the Bishop described Peter’s love he then spoke about great love and pointed directly at Dominic and me. Since the homily was in German, I asked him after Mass exactly what he had said. He said that some couples like us experience the great meaning of love in the fullest sense of the word. I was speechless!

That afternoon we were in for a treat with the opening ceremony held at the Basilica of St. Pius X under extreme security, in addition to the innumerous military units present. The Swiss Guard led in the official flag delegations from more than 30 participating countries, followed by as many brass bands. I could only think how much my father would have loved to be there. Everyone present received a cross, the symbol of this military pilgrimage, which the presiding bishop blessed before he read Pope Francis’ official message to delegates. Then we were invited to reach out and make the sign of peace with our neighbors. Of course I blew a kiss to my husband from across the church to which he could only nod in response.

We returned to the basilica later that evening for the International Vigil of Reconciliation and Confession to find the altar covered in candles. Hundreds of priests lined the edges of the church ready to hear confessions and a steady stream of pilgrims kept them busy. Afterward, I lit a candle at the altar with Dominic and we were able to enjoy walking back to the hotel on our own, his uniform a little disguised by the darkness.

 

Day 3 (Saturday, May 19)

On Saturday morning I joined the German-speaking Swiss Guards at a great outdoor Mass with Swiss and Austrian delegations at the nearby military camp Mont des Béatitudes. The surrounding trees gave full almost cover to the Mass even with the large orchestra and choir. One man in military service from Austria received the Sacrament of Confirmation during Mass, and another preparing for Baptism received a Bible and blessing. 

The camaraderie between the troops was fun to watch, as was being invited for beers in the rain afterward! 

After lunch my husband was in service at the official Commemoration for Fallen Soldiers and so I was free to partake in any of the military pilgrimage activities organized around town. As soon as I looked at the list I knew immediately where I was going; the sporting challenge with the wounded in the meadow. Each team was a mixture of able-bodied and wounded, and the intense joy and grit on the faces of the 300 challenge participants was breathtaking. It was like watching angels flying around the track while carrying the wounded with such care and respect. In fact when I re-watch my video footage they seem to be running at superhuman speed. This event will stay with me forever.

That night at the candlelit Marian Procession the Swiss Guards led the way accompanying the Cross as well as taking up the rear with the Statue of Our Lady. Everywhere I turned I could hear the ‘Hail Mary’ in a different language and then all of a sudden everyone would sing in unison “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” lifting their candles up to Heaven. The procession circled the esplanade before arriving in front of the Rosary Basilica where the Swiss Guards stood under the spotlight around the Cross and the Statue of Our Lady until the Irish marching band – complete with bagpipes - signaled the end of the parade with a moving rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’

 

Day 4 (Sunday, May 20)

Before the Sunday morning Mass in the Basilica of St. Pius X even began I was surprised by a beautiful gift. One of the Swiss Guard Albertine Nuns gave me a prayer card with a relic of Saint Faustina. It was already a blessed Sunday! There were images of saints on giant posters hanging all around the basilica and St. Faustina was looking right across at us during Mass. 

The orchestra began to play while the Swiss Guards led the procession of official flag bearers. They were followed by about 20 bishops and hundreds of priests in crimson robes to celebrate the Pentecost Mass. The basilica holds 25,000 and I didn’t see any spare seats. When the choir and the animated congregation sang the Hallelujah it almost raised the roof! The bishop who celebrated Mass greeted all those in wheelchairs afterward with the official sea of red flowing out of the basilica behind him. 

The Swiss delegation’s official meeting with the Swiss Guards took place over a relaxed lunch. Then before we knew it, the guards were getting back into formation to lead the parade for the Closing Ceremony. The days were long but the closing ceremony seemed to follow too soon after the opening celebration. Prayers were offered for the sick and injured in conflicts, and for those in military service around the world. “This is a unique moment on the Feast of Pentecost, the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit. We have come here together as friends and we go out as ambassadors of peace around the world.”

This was the final time the guards marched through town in their gala uniform. Each time they did it was with an escort to clear the way and ensure the Swiss Guard families stayed close to the troop. The protection for the protectors of the pope were members of the Gendarmerie of MELLE (79-F), the French army and one member of the French Foreign Legion. Gratitude and respect!

The last matter of the day was a meeting with a group of young children from the local parish choir who have been praying for the Swiss Guard every day for the last two years! The children asked the guards lots of questions about the life of a Swiss Guard. The best question was definitely, “What’s the littlest sacrifice you make?” to which one of the guards responded, “Your freedom — it’s a small sacrifice compared to what the role gives back.” The guards were extremely touched by the meeting — especially my husband.

 

Day 5 (Monday, May 21)

On Monday morning we had the opportunity to partake in another pilgrimage — the Way of the Cross. Above the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on the hill of Espélugues, a trail has been cut and the Stations of the Cross have been installed. We followed the uphill route to pray at the 15 stations of the Passion of Christ.

That afternoon the Swiss Guard Chaplain celebrated a thanksgiving Mass in the Crypt underneath the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, thanking God for the blessings we received during the pilgrimage and thanking the guards for the commitment and heart with which they carried out their service.

There was a little drama to end the pilgrimage. Apparently my prayers to stay in Lourdes were answered and our flight back to Rome was canceled due to a nationwide transport strike. So we had an extra day of waiting, praying and shopping! I happily used the day to stock up on souvenirs which I will be sending out to pilgrims worldwide who followed my pilgrimage online. The Swiss Guard Chaplain blessed the religious articles for me and I sprinkled water from the spring inside the sanctuary on everything, also spending some time at the nearby Adoration Chapel. Then I returned to the Grotto to light one last candle to prolong the prayers for everyone who asked me to pray for them.