Traveling when you are sick is tough for anyone.
For those whose suffering prompts a pilgrimage to the sacred shrine of Lourdes, France, the trip is even more difficult.
Add in the additional precautions, concerns and dangers of traveling within the global pandemic of COVID-19, and you begin to have some idea of the faith and dedication highlighted in a new documentary, “Return to Lourdes.”
Produced by Lancaster parishioner and filmmaker Peter Scudner, “Return to Lourdes” first aired on EWTN in December, a production of his Triode Media Group.
The 30-minute film follows the Order of Malta Western Association on pilgrimage to Lourdes in September 2021. Lourdes, in southern France, is one of the most visited shrines in the world. In Catholic tradition, it is the site where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. More than 7 million visitors a year traveled to Lourdes before the pandemic; many are returning now that it has re-opened.
Scudner has been a member of the Order of Malta since 2007, which gave him a unique perspective as a filmmaker.
“I came to the order as a way to live out my faith,” he said.
Officially, the order’s name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. It is a religious order composed of mostly lay people, and traces its roots to 1099. Among the Order of Malta’s many good works are yearly pilgrimages to Lourdes with those in search of healing.
Pilgrimages regularly take place the first week in May, but were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. Scudner said members believed it was safe enough to make the trip in September 2021, even with all the additional work required to accommodate COVID protocol.
Order of Malta members make a lifetime commitment to serving the poor and the sick and providing hands-on service. Scudner said members are expected to show up and do the work – it’s not a passive organization. So the chance to not only be part of a pilgrimage during the pandemic but also to film it was something Scudner felt called to do.
The pilgrimage was sponsored by the Order of Malta Western Association, and departed from Los Angeles, featuring travelers in search of healing from the West Coast and Hawaii.
The sick people who make the pilgrimage are called “maladies,” from the French for “sick.” The trip featured in “Return to Lourdes” included 50 malades, 50 caretakers (usually friends or family) and 250 volunteers, including Order of Malta members (Knights or Dames), nurses, doctors and chaplains.
Scudner had been to Lourdes about a dozen times before the documentary trip, for which he served as producer. His son Evan, the primary cinematographer, had been there five times. Peter Scudner said their prior experience in Lourdes allowed them to focus on making an authentic documentary. But his role was first and foremost as a Knight in the Order of Malta, to serve the malades.
Scudner said every trip to Lourdes is different depending on the malades, and this one had the added complication of navigating COVID. But he said there is also a constant to the pilgrimages.
“When you go to Lourdes, the first time you’re there and every time after that, it feels like you’re home,” he said.
“People come in search of healing. Although some come seeking physical healing, all come seeking some spiritual healing,” he said.
During the weeklong pilgrimage, the malades and their caregivers spend time in prayer and other spiritual activities. Some of these were different during COVID, but Scudner said one such difference may have actually been for the better.
Traditionally, malades have stepped into the baths of the spring water at the site, but they have done so segregated by gender. That meant that in many cases, malades and their caregivers did not experience the ritual together.
Under COVID protocol, as seen in the film, the water was poured from a pitcher so that malades and their caregivers could wash their hands or face, or drink from it side-by-side. Scudner said it’s a COVID modification that he feels may actually be closer to what the Blessed Mother instructed St. Bernadette to do.
In the documentary, malade Colleen Gates, who suffers from a rare type of cancer, made the trip with her caregiver daughter and her husband, who was the caregiver for her adolescent son who also travelled as a malade, diagnosed with a brain tumor at 10 months old.
Gates said the shared experience of being at Lourdes was overwhelming and deeply touching.
“When you’re sharing suffering together, you’re sharing that suffering and lightening the burden of that suffering for each other,” she said.
Ben Bongers had been to Lourdes before as a companion but is featured in the documentary as a malade. A former opera singer, Bongers experienced health issues briefly described in the documentary that make his pilgrimage particularly poignant.
“This is a place of healing and it’s not just physical healing. It’s healing mentally. It’s healing in the heart,” he said.
Scudner said the Order of Malta hopes to return to Lourdes this year so they can continue their mission. He said the Lancaster region has sponsored dozens of malades over the last decade and they hold an annual reunion and special Mass.
Scudner, a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Lancaster, said the Lancaster Region of the Order of Malta has approximately 30 members. Other Pennsylvania regions are in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Worldwide, the order has some 13,500 members, about 3,500 of whom are in the United States.
The Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11. Scudner said he expects EWTN may air the document again at that time and that it may be available for streaming.
The Order of Malta is one of the world’s oldest Christian institutions. In the 11th century, Blessed Fra’ Gerard saw poor and sick pilgrims of all faiths lying in the streets of Jerusalem. To relieve their misery, he founded a religious order of Catholic men and women to serve the needy and procure the necessities of life for them.
Today, the Order remains on the front lines of caring for the poor and sick without regard to race or religion in over 100 countries. By loving their neighbors in this special way, Knights and Dames of the Order carry on Blessed Gerard’s noble commitment to care for those living on the periphery of society.
The Order of St. John of Jerusalem was recognized by Pope Paschal II and placed under the protection of the Holy See in 1113. The original papal declaration still exists and is on display at the National Library in Valletta, Malta.
As a religious order, it is loyal to the Holy See but is also a sovereign subject of international law due to more than 500 years of political independence. The Grand Master is simultaneously the head of a sovereign State, the head of a religious Order, and a prince of the Roman Catholic Church. He is assisted by ten knights elected for limited terms on the Sovereign Council.
Learn more about the Lancaster Region of the Order of Malta at http://regions.orderofmaltafederal.org/lancaster.
(Lisa Maddux is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness.)
(Photos courtesy of Peter Scudner, Triode Media Group, Ltd.)
By Lisa Maddux, Special to The Witness