LOURDES, France — Love comes in many sizes, and here in Lourdes, it’s everywhere — big and small.
From the huge Rosary Basilica perched over the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes to the small gestures of kindness from residents, volunteers and pilgrims.
Those who are sick, elderly or struggling with difficulties find compassion and care, and special lanes are dedicated just to those in wheelchairs.
As I watched dozens of people being wheeled along the busy streets in the village or the quiet lanes near the sanctuary, what struck me was how all of them had colorful hand-knit or croqueted blankets draped across their legs, around their shoulders or tucked behind them.
I wondered how could it be all these visitors were expert knitters or had loved-ones making them such nice wrappings to bring on their pilgrimage?
Turns out volunteers make the blankets of every style and color to help stave off the chill from the cool mountain air.
Carla Zanoner, a volunteer from Trentino, Italy, showed off some of the blankets they loan out while people are in Lourdes.
“When we pick people up at the train station, lots of times it’s cold or it’s raining, so this helps them keep warm,” she told me. “They get here exhausted. One group from Sicily spent two and a half days on the train,” and volunteers are there to meet them after what is often a very long journey to get to this small town in southern France near the Pyrenees.
Carla, who was working at the shrine’s “lost and found” center May 16, says she comes to Lourdes 10 days a year, every year, to help out. “Pilgrims find strength and energy here and so do we” by helping them. “We get a boost and we head home renewed,” she said.
This weekend was dedicated to an international pilgrimage of military men and women, and their families.
More than 36 nations were represented and the Knights of Columbus sponsored 125 wounded active duty or retired troops and family members to come to Lourdes for a weekend of fellowship, prayer and healing.
An Irish volunteer traveling with a pilgrim group was handing out military rosaries — rosaries made by knotting camouflage military cord “for the safety of our brave soldiers” wherever they may find themselves, the enclosed brochure said.
Bishop Richard Spencer of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services was in attendance along with dozens of military chaplains from around the world.
Bishop Spencer, who has served in Bosnia, South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, was handing out “little miracles” — a special calling card with his contact information and an inspirational saying hidden inside.
It’s a novel way, when visiting troops around the world, to open the door to dialogue about God with people who are not Catholic or don’t belong to any faith.
He said he asks people if they would like “a fortune cookie.”
Almost everyone says ‘Yes,” and he hands them the tiny card. My inspirational saying said: “You are more, much more, than what you have.”
He said he’s handed out thousands of the cards since he started doing it in 2006. It gets the conversation going, he said, and people come back to him for more — more support, more inspiration, more dialogue.
“They’re hungry for something, for a little touch of grace” in their lives, he said.