Having been given the opportunity last year to help on a Y5 and Y6 school visit to Lourdes, I returned this year to bring my mum. I must begin by thanking first St Mary’s primary school because without them I would not ever have set foot in Lourdes and secondly, Kate Mara whose office is next to mine and who encouraged me to come back on the Birmingham pilgrimage which she helps to organise.
As a primary teacher, I am quite ignorant when it comes to secondary schools. I have learned a lot this week. I was taken aback by how many schools were on the pilgrimage (14), how many young people had come (over 200) and how hard they worked in the hospitals looking after the sick alongside the inspirational doctors and nurses who volunteer. It is worth remembering that this is half term week in Birmingham so the staff, many of whom also worked on rotas in the hospitals, have given their own time for the young people. I have seen groups going and coming from shifts looking shattered. As this is A level and GCSE exam season, in the hotel lobbies, teenagers are sat between shifts in silent revision. When not caring for the sick or revising, pupils are working with the musicians and staff to prepare mass, liturgies, processions and then participate in them. Watching it all going on, I have felt at times more of a tourist than a pilgrim because I’m not contributing to the work but above all I’ve been deeply impressed by the schools. A further mention of Kate and her husband Steve at this point who, despite being in the thick of the hard work and organisation, have made my mum feel welcomed and cared for. It has been humbling to be here.
The formation of young people that occurs through pilgrimage and service cannot be overstated. These are all state secondary schools under pressure from OfSTED and league tables and yet they choose to encourage their pupils to see beyond exams and develop themselves through service to others. This is not a Catholic phenomenon as all secondary schools encourage volunteering but it is an aspect of education that politicians and OfSTED deem unimportant. The teachers here will return to schools on Monday to be judged purely on data. What they have given pupils this week cannot be measured in simple statistics.
The care given by the doctors, nurses and young people (all of whom are volunteers paying their own way) here is focussed on the dignity of the person. The Catholic Church, in my view, gets a lot of things wrong but the understanding that is fostered in parishes and schools about the importance of the individual in relationship with God leads to profound level of care within medical establishments. I have to be careful because Jimmy Saville was Catholic but his behaviour removed dignity by appalling design. The example of care that runs through Catholic teaching is the collective opposite to Saville. It is not confined to Lourdes but can be found in Catholic health care (important as the Church remains the biggest provider of healthcare in the world) and schools across the world. It is not necessarily about the workers who will be as varied as in any other institution but about a culture which continues to develop to reflect medical advances (or pedagogy in the case of schools) without losing the emphasis on care for the person.
My Dad who was not Catholic and would not have appreciated some aspects of Lourdes would have recognised the quality of care. Towards the end of his life, he spent significant periods time in 4 different hospitals. Visiting him on geriatric wards and seeing that despite the best efforts of some of the dedicated NHS staff people were left feeling uncared for and a nuisance was very difficult. My dad was passionate about the NHS and at times I would find him in hospital seething about the provision he was seeing other people experience because the lack of resource (driven by the need to meet narrow targets in other parts of the system) led to a lack of care. Putting it bluntly, geriatrics don’t count in the NHS. If you want to experience care in the NHS, cancer wards are in my experience remarkable but my Dad didn’t die of cancer so he did not get to see what is possible. There was one time when I visited my Dad and then went to see an elderly priest who was in a care home run by a religious order of nuns. The care in the hope was equally professional with qualified nuns and nurses working together but the culture compared to the hospital was very different as it is in Lourdes. The elderly are seen as people who have lived life and continue to live life and on both counts, they deserve sensitive respect. This is demonstrated by minor details: noise comes from the patients not from the staff who keep their voices lowered so as not to disturb rest; time is taken to get to know people; only once someone is known will formality be relaxed; bins are not metal are therefore do not clang; modern music is not played etc etc.
I have benefited from the efficiency of the NHS. I have been in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham signed myself in on the computer, waited til my name appeared on the big screen, been operated on and gone back to work. It is a remarkable achievement that treats the working population and keeps them economically active. This level of provision came at a price of the closure of smaller hospitals (and a massive PFI debt). On a residential I once accompanied a Y6 pupil to a small cottage hospital after he came off worse in an encounter with a tree. The level of care was excellent but sadly, from my perspective, the hospital was closed a year later and resources centralised in places like the QE to increase efficiency. I remember thinking that when I am old, I would like to die feeling cared for not kept alive in a large medically focussed hospital. That feeling has been reinforced by my visit to Lourdes.
As a city and Archdiocese, Birmingham is steeped in Catholic devotion to Mary. This can be seen in: names such as Ladywood and Maryvale; the impact of the Irish diaspora; the life and influence of John Henry Newman who walked with his Rosary and the countless schools and parishes named in her honour. It is not surprising therefore that the Archdiocese pilgrimage continues to be popular. For Catholics, focussing on Mary leads to a profound understanding of God because of the bond between mother and son. My two short visits have lifted me spiritually and given me a fresh appreciation of the Catholic community in my city.
Pilgrimage as reality and metaphor
As a practice, pilgrimage has continued despite the problems of the Catholic Church. Everyone of any faith or philosophy benefits from complete time out. It is so hard to achieve and deeply challenging when it is experienced. It can be life affirming by enabling us to move beyond the shallow materialism of the world (including the religious tat shops outside the Lourdes shrine). Life should be seen as a journey because in doing so we can wake up in hope and move forwards away from or despite the misery we may experience . Pilgrimage plays a part in making that hope feel real.
I’ll finish by thanking the organisers, schools and musicians for making the past week memorable.