The International Military Pilgrimage started in 1958 when the French Armed Forces invited the German military to join them in Lourdes as a gesture of post-war reconciliation. Since then the pilgrimage has opened up and in 2014 some 41 countries were represented among the 20,000 military pilgrims. The invitation is sent to the British Chief of the Defence Staff by his French counterpart, and it is the Bishopric of the Forces that arranges the British participation. The British participants come from bases in the UK, Germany and Cyprus. Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary who appeared to a young girl called Bernadette over 150 years ago. Each year Lourdes attracts about six million pilgrims.
You can view some of our photos from our IMP Flickr gallery
HCPT is a volunteer-based charitable organisation founded in response to Our Lady’s invitation to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes. Its aim is to enable those who may need help, especially the young, to experience pilgrimage, and it does that in small caring groups.
Lourdes has been a place for pilgrimage since 1858. Today over five million people per year visit the town. HCPT founder Dr Michael Strode first visited in 1951 and saw the potential to organise a pilgrimage for disabled children at the school where he was working.
HCPT itself was founded in 1956 and now helps 1,000 disabled and disadvantaged children and young people visit every Easter, and hundreds of disabled and disadvantaged people of all ages to enjoy a week at Hosanna House near the town each Summer.
Every year, the children are seen making friends early on and it is moving to see them realising what they can do rather than focusing on their limitations. In many cases, the HCPT pilgrimage provides the first opportunity for the children to experience an environment where their condition does not set them apart from the norm but rather is the norm – many observe that Lourdes is the one place where passers-by don’t stare. It is striking to see how tears of homesickness at the start of the week often return when saying goodbye to friends at the end. Memories such as these remain forever for those privileged to have encountered them, and never fail to bring a tear or two to the eye of even the “toughest” helpers!
After more than 30 years, the Armed Forces continue to play a significant part in HCPT – The Pilgrimage Trust and have a tangible and welcomed presence. The commitment of all involved, whether before, during or after the trip, contributes to a fun-filled week for the children and provides invaluable respite for families and carers at home. A diverse cohort of serving and retired Service personnel, from all faiths and none, are supported by others with Service connections to provide a safe, exciting and unforgettable week’s pilgrimage holiday with exceptional care, at no charge to their parents, for children with special needs and links with the military community.
In personal development terms, the part played by our serving helpers constitutes Command Leadership and Management training “in the raw”. Totally involved in planning, they play a full part in organising daily routines for their charges, dealing with personal crises as they arise and coping with the emotional fallout of difficult personal issues. Others might call it simply “good character-building” stuff. Whichever you prefer, it sends our people back to their units taller and more complete individuals.
In the words of the Rt Rev Richard Moth, RC Bishop of the Armed Forces:
The benefits to the children who come on pilgrimage are very great indeed. They come together to pray, share and have fun with a great number of others who, like them, face major challenges in their lives, either through physical disabilities or other conditions that make it difficult for them to relate to others and engage in mainstream education and other activities. It is an occasion when they travel away from home – a very significant step for them and for their parents who commit their young ones to the care of others.
Similarly, the benefits to the helpers are immense… It is true to say that they gain from those in their care and learn much from them. The experience of the pilgrimage enables everyone to see what is possible when people are brought together, sharing life on a level of equality that is rarely found in other settings. It is without doubt the case that the pilgrimage brings much “value added” for all who take part, often in unexpected ways.
Our thanks go to all within the Trust and the Services, whose efforts mean that the our volunteer helpers are able to contribute to this international spectacle and to change lives by sharing God’s gifts of love, friendship and joy. A few of the thoughts, comments and feedback from parents and carers of the children made on return from Lourdes provide an insight to the difference that can be made; are testament to the efforts of all involved; and to the benefits to the children:
“Thank you so much for giving [her] the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing group. I am eternally grateful that [she] will cherish these memories.”
“I would love to say a huge thank you for taking [her] to Lourdes, she has had an amazing time and is talking non-stop about it ;o) thank you so much again ;o)”
“I would like to thank everybody for the wonderful trip. [He] really enjoyed it, and is planning his next one.”
“Thank you so much. He hasn’t been quiet yet and it sounds like he has had a fabulous time. I would like to say a big thank you to you all for helping him make the big move of going away from me for the first time.”
“Thank you so much for giving [her] this opportunity she’s had an amazing time. I am loving the way she has spent all day singing the HCPT songs.”
“To all of the helpers; thank you from myself and [my daughter]. What a fabulous time she has had.”
“Thank you for taking [him], he has had a great time. He said his helper was great and is already asking if he can go again in the future. The way he raves about it, us parents will want to go next!”
“I would like to thank you all for taking her to Lourdes, she speaks very highly of you all and has some very amusing stories and I love seeing her eyes light up when she tells me them and talks of all the new friends she has made. She has been teaching her little brother all the new songs that she has learnt. Thank you all so so so much!!!”
HCPT’s series of short videos are available from their website; the videos feature the Easter pilgrimage, as well as the extended programme of Summer pilgrimages for adults, and show how the work of the charity benefits the disabled and disadvantaged. In its 3½ minutes, the introductory video speaks volumes; please take a few moments to enjoy it and pass on the following link to those that may be interested.
As the Trust approaches its diamond jubilee in 2016, the Armed Forces Region is extending its reach; forming a new Regional Service Group that will allow personnel in the early stages of their military training in all three Services to participate without the full commitment of providing dedicated care for children. In many ways this new Regional Service Group is reminiscent of the Royal Navy’s original contribution made by personnel from HMS RALEIGH as long ago as 1979.
Plans are already afoot for next year and as always – volunteers, financial support and nominations of children are always welcomed.
You can view photos from this years pilrimage here:
For further information about HCPT you can visit their website: http://www.hcpt.org.uk/
Details about RAF Group can be found at http://www.hcpt.org.uk/group/187/
Details about the Army Group can be found at http://www.hcpt.org.uk/group/182/