A Pandemic Pilgrimage to Lourdes Was a Calculated Risk, With Plenty of Blessings
Despite being vaccinated and taking other precautions, 46 out of 294 people on a Lourdes pilgrimage contracted COVID, but no one was hospitalized for the virus, or had regrets, and organizers are weighing the lessons learned.
SALINAS, Calif. — When David Balch accepted the invitation to join the Western Association of the Order of Malta’s pilgrimage to Lourdes, scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 8, he embraced the chance to visit the Marian shrine in France where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette and countless miracles have been received.
After battling stage-3 metastatic colon cancer, the Salinas, California-based lawyer and executive director of a homeless outreach program didn’t focus on the dangers posed by travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. He knew every member of the group would be fully vaccinated and that the organizers planned to strictly adhere to public-health protocols.
“I went to Lourdes to encounter Christ, to spend time in his presence in an intentional way, to let his grace and the Virgin Mary’s presence touch my heart, body and spirit,” Balch, 51, told the Register.
Vivian Jaimes-Tidd, a 72-year-old Catholic from Park City, Utah, who joined the pilgrimage with her husband of 33 years, Jim, said that she accepted the risks and never looked back.
In 2018, Jaimes-Tidd walked into a hospital for a scheduled brain surgery and left in a wheelchair, unable to walk or speak clearly.
Struggling to overcome the deep anger she felt at her new predicament, she slowly turned to her faith and leapt at the opportunity to join the pilgrimage.
“My husband and I are double-vaccinated,” she told the Register. “Our friends were still concerned about the risk, but we were more concerned that we find meaning in the pilgrimage.”
Sense of Peace
Balch and Jaimes-Tidd were not disappointed. Both said they found a great sense of peace at Lourdes, testimony that will resonate with many of the faithful who have attended prior pilgrimages to the shrine sponsored by the Order of Malta, headquartered in Rome, with three U.S. associations.
But elements of this trip, conducted during a public-health crisis, also sharply departed from the familiar pattern of life at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, creating an unforgettable experience for seasoned pilgrims and first-timers alike.
“Because I have done so many trips, I knew what to expect, but this one threw many curveballs,” said Father John Love, a chaplain of the Order of Malta and the pastor of Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, California.
On top of the array of public-health guidelines, document requirements and resulting logistical hurdles, “the pandemic added a sense of existential threat that is normally not there,” he noted.
Most importantly, the 2021 Western Association pilgrimage will be cited in history books as the first group from the order to visit Lourdes during the global pandemic. And though its organizers adhered to public-health guidelines, all the pilgrims and Lourdes hotel staff were vaccinated, and further changes to the schedule were introduced to keep the novel coronavirus at bay, it will also be remembered for its failure to prevent transmissions: Forty-six pilgrims would test positive at Lourdes or upon their return, including three out of 42 malades (the French word for a person who is sick), though no one was hospitalized or died as a result of infection.
Mark Tiernan, the pilgrimage director, Dr. Dan Field, the medical director, and other members of the Western Association leadership team understood the risks the pilgrims faced and weighed the dangers and benefits of going ahead.
“Taking these sick and dying people for a 12-hour plane flight, a non-stop pilgrimage, and then add in the risk posed by a deadly virus, was a frightening prospect,” Field, an emergency room physician located in Sacramento, California, told the Register.
‘A Unique Opportunity’
The Western Association’s pilgrimage team finally pushed ahead because they knew that many malades had been “bereft” after they had been accepted for one of the order’s two previously scheduled pilgrimages, only to learn that each had been canceled because of the pandemic. A number of those applicants died in the interim.
“This is a unique opportunity for the malades to gain a sense of peace and firm up their relationship with God and the Blessed Virgin before they make their transition to the next world or continue to live with their infirmity,” said the physician.
The order “is set up and receives its sanctification by serving the poor and the needy,” he noted, and the Lourdes pilgrimage is “one signature event that expresses this special charism.”
Eighty applicants applied for the 50 slots designated for the sick, with an additional number of places reserved for their caregivers. Forty-two actually attended this year, and one malade succumbed to terminal brain cancer about a week after returning home.
No minors under the age of 12 attended because they could not be vaccinated.
Working from their past experience, the pilgrimage’s leadership team “adopted a layered risk-prevention strategy,” asking people to mask and to test for COVID prior to travel, for example.
“We thought we could create a bubble where we are all vaccinated and everyone at the hotel and domain are all vaccinated,” said Tiernan. “Our idea in following the science was that if even we got COVID, it would not be very bad, and that turned out to be true.”
They also constructed a “safety net, an in-depth structure that would allow us to handle any situation that came our way,” he added.
The team brought 380 virus test kits. The plan was that if someone tested positive, that individual would isolate in his or her room. If a few had serious symptoms, they would be taken to the clinic at the domain. If their condition worsened, they would go to the regional hospital.
Additional insurance was purchased, in the event that an air ambulance was needed to transport a pilgrim back to the United States.
Every element of the schedule was scrutinized to remove or mitigate health risks, and the Western Association was in close contact with the domain’s medical bureau, which sent regular updates on virus-transmission rates before the group’s arrival.
Visit to the Baths
The vast candlelight processions and underground Masses that highlight the weeklong Order of Malta’s pilgrimage were not a significant issue, as the Western Association group would be on its own on the grounds of the sanctuary. But the much-anticipated visit to the famous baths, where those suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses are immersed in the healing waters, was another matter.
In a major departure from past tradition, however, the shrine’s medical bureau decided earlier this year that pilgrims would no longer be guided into the baths, which are sex-segregated and staffed with experienced volunteers. Instead, they would be invited to pray as they washed their face and hands and drank the Lourdes water, with spouses, caregivers or other companions taking part.
This change more closely follows the Virgin’s specific instruction to St. Bernadette, said Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta, an Italian-American pediatrician, and the president of both the Bureau of Medical Observations and International Lourdes Medical Association.
“Our Lady told Bernadette on Feb. 25, 1858 (ninth apparition), ‘Thou go to the fountain to drink and get washed.’ Bernadette obeyed in the presence of about 400 witnesses,” de Franciscis told the Register.
“Some years later, on an unknown date, someone must have thought to build a bath tub in the style of the local thermal plants, most probably to help people that were sick or paralyzed or lying on a stretcher. The procedure — not asked by Our Lady nor done by Bernadette — has become the rule.”
The return to the original ritual, he said, “has moved thousands to tears. The pilgrim enters the baths in a small group; he/she is reminded of the ninth apparition and is invited to pray in silence, and, finally, a volunteer hospitalier will pour some spring water in the hands of the pilgrim to drink from and wash the face or elsewhere. For the first time in over a century, husband and wife, men and women, parents and children, sick person and their family, dying persons and their health-care professionals have prayed, drank of the water and got washed with it together, exactly as St. Bernadette did on Feb. 9, 1858.”
The new practice and other modifications were designed to reduce risk during a week of activities. However, the pilgrimage’s organizers quickly learned that the virus had been introduced at the very start of the trip. An infected pilgrim who initially tested negative got on the charter flight departing from Los Angeles to Lourdes, and the virus was transmitted to a number of people sitting nearby, said Field, and those who subsequently tested positive were quarantined.
Collecting and Analyzing the Data
The team is now collecting and analyzing data for a report on the lessons learned from the group’s daunting experience, and the physician provided the Register with a technical summary of the initial findings.
The summary says that “294 vaccinated people of various ages and comorbidities voluntarily and with informed consent traveled in close proximity for eight days, including 24 hours of total flight time. The group subsequently shared meals, singing, and processing together,” and approximately 16% “ultimately tested positive and/or developed symptoms; none were hospitalized or died because of infection.”
“This shows both the infectiousness of the current variants and the power of the vaccine to shield from serious illness,” the document concludes.
Field said it was impossible to know whether the outcome might have been very different if the first infected pilgrim had stayed home instead of getting on the flight. But he has also determined that there is no “zero-risk strategy” once you accept the life-altering value of the pilgrimage for a Catholic “who may have a deadly illness, whose life expectancy is measured in months, not years, and is eager to go to Lourdes for a final resolution.”
In hindsight, however, the team would likely add additional steps to the health measures that were already adopted.
“We could have required testing within 48 hours of departure,” said Field. “We could have screened at the door of the flight. We could have initiated better, higher-quality mask wearing — N95 masks — on the plane.”
After the pilgrimage was over, with some volunteers who tested positive forced to remain behind in France and others who tested positive after their return quarantining at home, each person was surveyed and asked if they had any regrets about joining the group.
“They said, ‘No. This was a risk. I knew it going in,’” reported the physician, who confirmed that he was among those who had been infected with the virus.
A Small ‘Left Turn’
Wendy Aimes, a volunteer from Menlo Park, California, agreed with this finding, while noting the sense of frustration her husband, John, felt when he was forced to remain behind and quarantine in France, with living expenses covered by the Order of Malta.
“John and I have always looked at life thinking you never know when there will be a left turn,” Wendy told the Register. “We have had some left turns and always dealt with them. This was a small one.”
Nevertheless, there will likely be changes to the consent form, to better clarify all the risks associated with such an undertaking.
“The biggest fallout was when people returned” and then tested positive, said Field. “Children couldn’t attend school, and a neurosurgeon couldn’t operate for 10 days after he returned. There was a lot of fallout that needs to be more carefully consented.”
Father Love, the Malta chaplain, did not dispute the many problems associated with a pandemic pilgrimage. At the same time, he suggested that the unwelcome burdens tapped into the Church’s long tradition of adopting spiritual practices that test believers’ faith and powers of endurance.
“Today, you can hop on a plane and be at the pilgrimage site in 10 hours,” he said. “But, for many pilgrimages, the real test for the faithful is getting to their destination over many weeks, if not months. That’s why some knights and dames said this was the most unforgettable trip they had made there.”
The pilgrims’ experience will inform and inspire others to consider whether and how they can safely conduct a pilgrimage during an unprecedented health crisis, said Dr. de Franciscis.
Meanwhile, Vivian Jaimes-Tidd and Balch expressed gratitude for the gift of Lourdes they have received.
Jaimes-Tidd acknowledged that she went to France with the “fervent wish” that she would “return — walking.”
Thus far, that prayer hasn’t been granted. But as she took part in the Stations of the Cross at Lourdes, she was reminded that “God has his reasons” for allowing the cross of suffering, and this knowledge deepened her trust in his Providence.
Balch said he would never forget the “indescribable peace” that infused his soul as he prayed the Rosary one day in the domain’s adoration chapel.
While he recited the Fifth Glorious Mystery, the Crowning of the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Heaven, the main clock in Lourdes chimed the Ave Maria. “A voice said, ‘I love you. My son loves you. Don’t be afraid,’” he remembered, his voice infused with a sense of awe.
“I felt loved to the fiber of my being. It was like getting a glimpse of heaven.”
The pilgrimage to Lourdes was documented by the Order of Malta. Please peruse images by visiting the photo essay here including a reflection from Father John Love.
Editor’s Note: Joan Desmond is a member of the Order of Malta and has participated in previous Lourdes pilgrimages. EWTN sent a film crew to accompany and document the pilgrimage, and the network will air footage at a future date.