Homily of Bishop Fintan Monahan for the opening of the 61st annual Lourdes Pilgrimage

27 Jun 2017

The Catholic Dictionary describes a pilgrim as one making a pilgrimage to a place of religious significance or a shrine of particular devotion; one making a sacred journey for the purpose of becoming familiar with the place, in praying to get closer to God, it may be in fulfilling a vow, in petition of some special favour, or in penance.  Fairly broad ranging!  Pilgrimage is really a mini-model of our larger Christian journeys, the pilgrimage of life.

Shell – Symbol of Pilgrimage
I have with me what is probably the most famous symbol or badge of pilgrimage, the scallop shell worn on the back pack of pilgrims as they walk the 800 kilometres towards Santiago de Compostela.  This little shell was harvested from the sea off Inisbarra a tiny Island out from Lettermore, Co Galway where my Grandmother hailed from.  It survived the course from the French Pyrenees along the Camino to Compostela, on to Finisterre and back home and onwards here to Our Lady’s Shrine at Lourdes.  This shell, which is an outside layer, reminds us that there was once something inside as well.  It represents all our inward journeys here today as pilgrims to pray, to get closer to God, to make real some of that great love mentioned in the Gospel, whether that be from the far end of Loop Head as far east as Kinnity.  Today we hope that the shell of our hearts will be filled and over-flow abundantly with the substance, the stuff, the reward of pilgrimage.

Sir Walter Raleigh
In the words of Sir Walter Raleigh:
“Give me my scallop shell of quiet
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory, hope’s true gauge,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage”.

Go dtuga Dia luach saothair na hoilithreachta dúinn le rabharta beannachtaí agus grástaí.

Nature of Pilgrimage
In being pilgrims here today in Lourdes we move away from the ordinary, the routine chores and tasks of our daily lives, we journey in faith, in that hope, that we might enter into and get a glimpse of that glory mentioned in Sir Walter Raleigh’s words and is a common theme from Apocalypse often read as Easter spiritual reading.  “Here God lives among men.  He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and we will be their God; his name is God- with-them”, in the words of Saint John.  On pilgrimage we hope to get a sense of God being with us.  He’s not just outside on the shell, but right in-there, intimately present to us, here and now.

Pilgrimage – Letting Go
Pilgrimage is about letting go.  Letting go of the things that can enslave us in our normal routine.  The heart of the pilgrim journey is trusting in providence and leaving anxiety behind.  Tagore said, one is a “fool to try to carry thyself upon thy own shoulders”.  This day, as pilgrims in Lourdes we bare our souls before the Lord and realise that He is there for us with open arms and we actually don’t need to carry ourselves on our own shoulders.

Saint John of the Cross remarked “God’s greatest gifts fall into hearts that are empty of self.”  We come to Lourdes today with that frame of mind, we humbly place ourselves before Our Lady of Lourdes and her son Jesus Himself, the Lamb of God and please God will return to our places of residence enriched, renewed and spiritually nourished with that life giving encounter and real felt presence.

Pilgrimage – Tradition
The reality of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in our religious background and history.  From Abraham in the ancient far-east to Jesus on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the constant desire of the Jews to go the great temple, to be close to the “Holy of Holies”.

Richness of Tradition of Pilgrimage
Down through the millennia of Christianity the tradition of pilgrimage has expanded and blossomed.  Assisi, Avila, Bobbio, Canterbury, Chartres, Czectochowa, Ephesus, The Shrines of France, Fatima, Glastonbury, Greece, Iona, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Lindisfarne, Liseux, Lourdes, Manresa, Mexico, Medjugorge, Montserat, Norwich, Santiago de Compostela, Taizé, Tours, Vatican City, Walsingham, Westminster Abbey to name but a few.

In Ireland places like Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick, Máméan, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, various holy wells, pattern days developed on the back or our reputation of being the Island of Saints and scholars.

Killaloe – Local Pilgrimages
In our own diocese Holy Island, Inis Cealtra, Canon Island, Terryglass, Lorrha, Letteragh, Saint Flannan’s and Senan’s well and countless other places.

Goal of Pilgrimage
It is our belief that the pilgrim journey in travelling, in being with others, in that movement inward can lead us to becoming more integrated psychologically, socially, spiritually.  Interestingly, pilgrimage is not all about the end product, our final destiny.  On the way to Compostela you are constantly greeted by fellow travellers with the words “Beun Camino”, have a good way.  The journey, the way, the quality of travelling is just as important as the end product.  From a Buddhist perspective, the pilgrim becomes more “Buddha-like”, from a Jewish or Islamic view, one becomes more “holy”; from a Christian perspective, one becomes more “Christ-like”.  Daoine difriúla muid.  Táimid níos beannaithe níos naofa théis Oilithreacht a dhéanamh.

Great Irish Missionary – Columbanus
The great Irish Missionary Columbanus reminds us again that pilgrimage is a model of the bigger journey of life and our search for our true final destiny.

“Let us concern ourselves with things divine, and as pilgrims ever sigh for and desire our homeland; for the end of the road is ever the object of the traveller’s hopes and desires, and thus, since we are travellers and pilgrims in the world, let us ever ponder on the end of the road, that is of our life, for the end of our roadway is our home”.

Emily Dickenson in her poetry often used that same metaphor of home as being the one thing on this earth that most described God.  As pilgrims today we may be away from home, but we take that significant step towards our real home – as we rest in God.  We know as Saint Paul mentions in the first reading that “we will experience many hardships” on that homeward journey but it’s a pilgrim trip worth making.

Emptying in order to be more open
So we come here today empty of ourselves, like that scallop shell so that we can be open to receive.  At that stage we can bring with us our cares and worries, fears, uncertainties, anxieties, darkness, sufferings, our petitions, our desires, our longings, along with the needs of others who have asked our prayers.  We believe that in this most sacred of venues, at Our Ladies Shrine that we truly encounter the source of our being and that through that meeting we truly become better people of love that Saint John talks about in the Gospel.  T.S. Eliot in the “Four Quartets” describes it as follows;

…you are to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.  And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Here at Lourdes under the watchful care of Mary that seems to come to us more easily.  Somehow in this sacred place whether its praying in this beautiful Shrine, in holding a candle in the rosary procession or doing the way of the Cross or availing of the love and Mercy of God in the Sacrament of Confession our prayer is as Eliot says more valid in this Holy Ground in Lourdes.

Pilgrimage – Letting Go
I mentioned earlier on that pilgrimage was about letting go.  ‘Letting Go, to let God’, as the phrase goes.  This scallop shell should really have been let go.  The tradition is that at the end of the Camino, at the geographical end of the Old World in Finisterre about 30 miles from Compostela you throw your shell into the sea, a ritual of having arrived and letting go the past and embracing the new self-moulded and forged through the effort of pilgrimage.  I must confess that this shell represented too much for me to let it go.  Inwardly and outwardly it represented in memories so much of what is achieved on pilgrimage.  It seemed to be too full of treasured moments.  It was so symbolic of journeying outward in order to delve deeper within and encounter the sacred on a deeper level.  I felt it had to be brought home and treasured as a memento.  Letting go is never easy!

Parting Wish
Today I hope that as we begin our pilgrimage to Lourdes that we enter into and experience that sense of sacredness, that this spiritual experience would become most real, and that from that as we return to our homes next Saturday with more of a sense of love and peace in our homes, our communities and our work-places.

Welsh Poet – R.S. Thomas
In the words of the Welsh Poet – R.S. Thomas “Something to bring back to show you have been there; a lock of God’s hair, stolen from him while he was asleep; a photograph of the garden of the spirit.  As has been said, the point of travelling is not to arrive, but to return home laden with pollen you shall work up into honey the mind feeds on”.

Final greeting
My hope today would be that the metaphorical scallop shells that we brought here today full of the cares of the world should return being full of peace, love, serenity and a sense of God’s presence and that that you are enveloped in the Cloak of Mary.  Faoi bhrat na Maighdinne Muire go raibh muid ar fad, go dtuga Dia slán abhaile muid agus muid ag filleadh go Chill dá Lua amach anseo.


  • Bishop Fintan Monahan is Bishop of Killaloe.
  • This homily was preached at 9.00am Mass this morning in Lourdes.  You can follow the diocesan pilgrimage on Facebook and on the diocese’s new Twitter page @KillaloeDiocese.

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