Connor is new to Group 149 for the 2016 pilgrimage; a theology student at Durham entering his third year of undergraduate study. While Connor is a new helper for Group 149’s 2016 pilgrimage to Lourdes, he has been a number of times with his home diocese of Salford, and for the last few years has acted as a group leader for the diocese.
There is no doubt that in our increasingly secular society, to have faith is counter-cultural, it subverts the norm; and society seems to label anyone with faith as being the product of an indoctrinated childhood. However, my story, as does the stories of many others, breaks this mould. While my mother is a Roman Catholic and my father is a Methodist, neither is practising. In fact, none of my family are religious. I was baptised as a child and received the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion at the age of 7, as is customary in our diocese. However, these were mere hoops to jump through, so to speak, and had no real significance to me. These were probably the only times I stepped foot in a Church during my childhood. In fact, the word ‘church’, for me, was synonymous with boring, futile and, in retrospect, false. I meandered through life with a total lack of interest in religion, and it was only when I was 11 that Church forcefully found its way back into my life. I chose to attend a Catholic secondary school, though I only chose this school because it was one of the finest schools in Manchester, and not because it was Catholic; in reality, the fact that it was catholic was a more of a put-off than a selling point for me. However, my absence of faith remained resolute and the only way in which religion entered into my life was in the form of compulsory masses and in my religion classes, which was a core subject up until GCSE. As my GCSE’s approached I realised that I needed help and so this was the first time that I would turn to the Lord and I began to attend Sunday Mass at my local parish. However, my presence at Mass was not as a result of faith and nor did I pay much attention to the readings, I merely thought it was worth a go if it meant I would achieve good results. I was using the Lord in an attempt to gratify me my material wishes, rather than to worship him.
However, I had approached the age where I was looking for purpose in life, asking those big existential questions, questions which I had never previously considered, and as I began to listen to the readings at Mass the seeds of faith were placed into me by the Lord, which would later flourish.
My school had organised a group to partake in the Salford Diocesan Pilgrimage the previous year and I remember sitting through an assembly listening to the cliché descriptions of Lourdes, and it wasn’t the words ‘sick’, ‘Mass’, or ‘procession’ that leaped out at me, but the word ‘pub.’ In fact, I had totally misconstrued the nature of this pilgrimage (a word which I didn’t even really comprehend the meaning of). Lourdes seemed like a release, a place of freedom, a place where I could escape my problems; and this is the reason I thought that I was going to Lourdes. It was only a few weeks before when the ‘ins and outs’ of the pilgrimage were explained to us, that I began to have serious doubts and regrets. However, two then seminarians came in to speak to us (bearing in mind that I thought anyone associated with church was alien, boring and dull, I didn’t hold out much hope). However, I soon came to see that they were just human beings like me and you. Also, one of them called Frankie (now Father Frankie), spoke about how he had suffered from some difficult times in his childhood which landed him in a lonely state of depression. Frankie talked about how the Lord was his refuge and how the Lord brought him happiness. At the present time I was seeking happiness as I was having a very tough time due to home circumstances and Frankie’s words really jumped out at me. Frankie said how it was no coincidence that a priest walked into his life during his time of depression and I soon picked up on the sentiment that it would be no coincidence that Frankie would walk into my life; it was most certainly part of God’s wonderful plan for me. Then, the other seminarian, Gavin Landers, spoke. Gavin talked of how he had always looked for happiness in material possessions and had led a rather hedonistic life, only to conclude that God is what brings him true happiness. Gavin uttered a marvellous quotation from Blaise Pascal which remains a potent and significant one to me: it goes, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” I think so often in our world we focus our lives on the material possessions of this world and lose sight of what is important, and what gives us true happiness, the Lord our God. What impressed me about these 2 young men (and what would impress me about the pilgrims in Lourdes) is the manner in which they bore witness to their faith, and as Padre Pio said, “let them come.” If we live our lives in accordance with Christ, people will begin to ask questions and this is how we spread our faith. So in the light of all this, over the weeks leading up to the pilgrimage I contemplated what had been said and I realised that what was required was to go to Lourdes with my heart in my hand and be open to God.
Lourdes, in a nutshell, changed my life. For the first time in my life I felt truly happy, not a happiness that could be granted by anything in this world, but something utterly different. I felt myself be transformed, and others around me also saw, experienced and commented upon this. By the end of the week I led some of my peers in a meditation of the Stations of the Cross and I suddenly found myself talking openly about God for the first time. At the commencement of the Stations Gavin Landers reminded us all of the quotation from John’s Gospel, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and he requested that we kept this in mind throughout, and by the conclusion of the Stations I could say to myself that I fully believed that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and the exclusive path to God our Father. So Lourdes was the place that planted in me the seeds of faith with have constantly grown since and hopefully will one day blossom into the form of whatever God’s will may be for me. The idea of “thy will be done” (fiat) was talked of a lot in Lourdes and this made me realise that I have to offer myself entirely to the Lord and embark upon whatever his vocation for me. For the first time I knew I had real concrete faith which since then has been unflinching.
I was aware that Lourdes could be a ‘mountain top’ experience, but as I came home to my unbelieving family, and back to the harsh reality of my problems, I felt that whatever happened I had an underlying happiness and peace of heart and mind. I went on a few retreats, started to attend weekday Mass, and really explored my faith. I found many new friends and my life was saved. I then began to discern my vocation just before my 18th birthday, and now, 2 and a half years later I have finally decided that God is calling me to the priesthood and I will be applying next year.
Thus, Lourdes always will have a special place in my heart and I have promised Our Lady that I will return every year for as long as I am able to. Lourdes is integral to my journey and to my life, and it would simply make my year if you would be kind enough to grant me the opportunity to come with HCPT.
(ed J. Edgar)