FOR 900 years members of the Order of Malta have taken two vows – Tuitio Fidei (Defence of the Faith) and Obsequium Pauperum (Service to the Poor and the Sick).
The order holds its annual pilgrimage to Lourdes on the first weekend in May and extending over a week or more.
The order has a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and especially to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Members are expected to attend Lourdes at least once in their lifetime.
Counting members, volunteers, family members and the “malades” (the sick) themselves, anything up to 10,000 attend wearing the traditional uniforms which hark back to former times including the First World War, when the order had its own hospital trains attending to the causalities.
The order still carries on this tradition in numerous parts of the world including Syria.
Currently it also provides the medical manpower on relief ships off the Italian island of Lampedusa, rescuing thousands of refugees who survive the perils of fleeing parts of Africa.
Equally, many thousands drown.
In Lourdes, whole trainloads arrive from Italy and chartered aircraft fly in from the United States, England, Ireland and Malta
In spite of the distance, last year 40 members attended from the Australian association, and Queenslanders have traditionally been strong supporters and have played important roles in the organisation of the pilgrimage for the past few years.
With the distances and costs involved, it is almost impossible to transport our own malades to Lourdes and we Australian pilgrims attach ourselves as volunteers with the Irish contingent.
Many find it is almost impossible to describe in words the phenomenon known as “the Lourdes experience”.
Medical neuro-scientists have recently become fascinated by it and are now investigate in order to understand the effects of visiting Lourdes.
There is no sadness, no sorrow, and no long faces – merely an acceptance of their lot by both the sick and their carers.
One commentator described the atmosphere as “cheerful compassion”.
Another said: “The sight of so many members of our order, distinguished by their uniforms, including the young and enthusiastic helpers of the various ambulance brigades and auxiliary groups associated with the order, was a visible demonstration of the strength of the Order of Malta worldwide, and of its vitality.
“The torchlight Marian processions, the huge international congregation at a pontifical Mass in the underground Basilica of St Pius X; the blessing of the sick with the Blessed Sacrament are moving events never to be forgotten.”
My other vivid memories include the sight of a gentle friar hearing an old man’s confession on a riverside bench near the grotto, and of a young helper pushing an elderly malade at top speed in his wheelchair, to whoops of delight from both.
It is difficult for Australians to personally attend Lourdes and there are alternative annual Lourdes Masses held in Australia.
In Queensland, the Lourdes Healing Mass is usually also held on the first weekend in May at St Paschal Baylon Church, Wavell Heights, where chaplains of the order concelebrate Mass, give the sick a healing blessing and members distribute Lourdes holy water and rosaries.
Dr Ian Marshall is the Australian president of the Order of Malta.
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