LOURDES, France — More than 15,000 worshippers descended upon this village in southern France May 21-23. They had at least two things in common; their Catholic faith, and an affiliation with military service.
Military delegations from England, France, the United States and even from as far away as South Korea were just a few of the more than 30 countries represented here.
It was all part of the 52nd annual International Military Pilgrimage during which servicemembers, veterans and their families traveled to Lourdes to worship and to visit the site where many believe a young girl, Bernadette, was visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858.
As the story goes, the apparition came to Bernadette in the Grotto and told the girl to pray, repent, drink from and bathe in the waters of the spring there.
Many believe the waters of the spring have healing powers and make the pilgrimage to experience a healing of their own.
Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Fitz-Patrick, 3rd Air Force chaplain, made this pilgrimage as the U.S. Chaplain Head of Delegation. He said there are many aspects of healing.
"I think the faith the person brings is definitely going to impact what the result is going to be," said Fitz-Patrick. "'More than physical healings or cures is a sense of spiritual cleansing."
Army Staff Sgt. Oscar Guerra made the pilgrimage all the way from Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Guerra is a Purple Heart recipient who lost the bottom half of his left leg as a result of a 2007 Improvised Explosive Device attack in Baghdad.
He said making the pilgrimage to Lourdes reminded him how "wonderful" it is for him to be "reconnected" with his faith. "Spiritually, it's helped me along the way in my recovery," said Guerra. "By coming here, I thought I could reconnect again, which I wholeheartedly feel I have."
The three-day pilgrimage included an international Mass, an English language outdoor Mass led by U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, and a candlelight procession attended by most, if not all of the more than 15,000 pilgrims.
Other events featured color guards and ceremonial units from each participating country. The Ramstein Honor Guard represented the U.S. delegation during daily ceremonies.
Additionally, senior military leaders represented their respective nations. Third Air Force Commander Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc was the senior U.S. Air Force representative. He said he feels faith is important for servicemembers. "People who are well established in their faith have hope," said General Gorenc.
Gorenc also called the pilgrimage, "quite an emotional event."
He said the pilgrimage was a good event for the U.S. military and an American presence showed the U.S. is committed to its coalition partners.
"To be able to be involved in these international gatherings helps our coalition partners understand Americans and American values," Gorenc said.
Fitz-Patrick said he thought the pilgrimage allowed many nations to bond through a common faith despite such differences as language.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity between nations to come together and actually be praying for peace," he added.
Between 450 and 500 U.S. servicemembers, veterans, and their families made the pilgrimage to Lourdes this year.