LOURDES, France — In the heart of the Marian month, May 17-19, the 61st International Military Pilgrimage (PMI) of Lourdes, in the south of France, took place. This year, 14,000 faith-filled soldiers and other military personnel from 40 countries on all five continents attended.

Every year, hundreds of wounded and ill soldiers take part in the activities and celebrations of the PMI through a partnership of the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA: “Warriors to Lourdes” provides the opportunity for hundreds of American wounded, ill and injured soldiers to live the transformative experience of a pilgrimage in the French city where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in the cave-grotto at Massabielle.

The three-day gathering for the worldwide military Catholic chaplaincies, which was initiated in 1958 and whose motto is “Fraternity, Peace, Hope,” offers each year a series of religious and festive celebrations, time for sharing and concerts performed by several international military musical groups around the French city.

“It is a very significant event, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to form friendships and bonds of trust while praying for peace and placing ourselves under the Virgin Mary’s gaze,” Bishop Antoine de Romanet, president of the PMI and bishop for the French armed forces, told the Register. “For us, peace is not the victory of the strongest over the weakest, not the continuing of the war by other means, not peace of the cemeteries but peace of the hearts, peace as a fruit of justice and charity,” he said. “It mustn’t be only words, but a commonly lived experience.”

On the eve of the pilgrimage, French-Catholic football star Olivier Giroud, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, greeted the participants in a video message published on the Twitter account of the Diocese of the French Armed Forces. “I think it is great to be able to gather fighters from 40 different countries and to bear witness to one’s faith,” he said. “It brings a lot of hope for the future generations and for peace in the world. Bravo to you all; please continue — you have all my admiration and support!”

 

A Process of Forgiveness

Started in the aftermath of World War II, this pilgrimage was originally designed to foster reconciliation between France and Germany, and it has continued since then to gather soldiers from countries through prayer, even from those that may be at war. After several years of spontaneous military gatherings in Lourdes, the first pilgrimage in 1958 gathered 40,000 pilgrims from 11 nations.

“The pilgrimage was born from a process of forgiveness from France and the historic memory of such an event has always been maintained,” Angelo Scalmazzi, vice director of the PMI and head of the Swiss delegation, told the Register. Scalmazzi has attended the pilgrimage every year since 1987, and the PMI quickly became a mission for him. “The lack of mutual knowledge was at the origin of the world wars, and the PMI offers the possibility to very different people to get to know each other,” he said.

Such an assessment is shared by Kevin Shinkle, American senior vice president and chief communication officer of the Knights of Columbus, which sponsors the “Warriors to Lourdes” pilgrimage within the scope of the PMI. As he points out, “soldiers and sailors who 100 years ago were killing each other across Europe come together in peace to pray, to sing and to enjoy each other.”

The gathering is, in his opinion, a testimony to the power of faith. “We can still be patriotic and love our own nation, but as Catholics, we know there is a higher power at work, as well.”

 

Instruments of Peace

And just like at the end of World War II, the French-American friendship is still considered to have a significant role to play in promoting world peace. “The political situations may be difficult, especially at this period, but among the military, who are united in their search for peace and reconciliation, the relationships are very deep and very close, especially between the French army, the United States and the Knights of Columbus,” Col. Charles Gallina, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and chief of the U.S. delegation to the PMI, told the Register, adding that this event was a way for him to continue a mission of life beside the military.

And the main cohesive element of such a search for peace, rooted in the Catholic faith, is devotion to the Virgin Mary, even though about 25% of the attendees are non-Catholic, as Gallina told the Register. According to him, a Jewish female rabbi was among the pilgrims who attended Mass and the Marian procession, together with Greek Orthodox and Protestant Christians, all united by honoring Mary. “All of them felt the blessing and peace of the Mother of God. She is at work here, and we all felt it,” Gallina said.

The pilgrimage is a testament to how the Church delivers a decisive message of hope and fraternity to the world. If peace is a good to be preserved and a goal to be pursued for the Church, it is the mission of the soldiers to make that happen. “The military hate war because they make it!” Bishop de Romanet told the Register. “Soldiers are real instruments of peace, at the service of the political authorities of their country.”

“Christ always had very positive relationships with the centurions of the surrounding Roman army,” he added. “The army is, above all, a force that must be at the service of peace, and it is beautiful to see that such feeling is in the heart of all the participants to the pilgrimage.”

 

Supporting the Sick and Wounded

Among the highlights of the event was the “International Challenge” that gathered the wounded and the able-bodied alike for various physical competitions in the meadow of the Sanctuary of Lourdes on May 18. The players were divided into 25 teams from all nationalities, whose runners pushed a double-wheel joëlette, a two-wheeled chair, on which a disabled warrior was seated.

The initiative was promoted by Hospitalité Notre-Dame des Armées and the Institution Nationale des Invalides, a national institution for disabled war veterans, aimed at raising awareness and changing people’s perception of wounded military members.

The whole experience at Lourdes changes these warriors’ hearts and lives.

“By spending time with their fellow warriors and our chaplains, they realize they are not alone in their pain, and they open themselves up to the healing power of God,” Kevin Shinkle told the Register, reporting that, sometimes, true miracles happen. “Marriages are saved. Suicides are averted. And our pilgrims gain the strength needed to come off the spiritual mountain that is Lourdes and persevere in their daily lives.”

Solène Tadié is the Europe correspondent for the Register.