Military pilgrimage to Lourdes builds resilience

Article / May 19, 2017 / Project number: 17-0091

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — Spirituality is a pillar of the Canadian Army (CA) health services infrastructure and a group of current Canadian soldiers and veterans is embarking on a pilgrimage that a CA chaplain says has a profound effect on those who take it, whatever their particular beliefs.

The International Military Pilgrimage (IMP) was created by the French Armed Forces after the Second World War in a gesture of reconciliation to their German counterparts. This year, the 59th IMP, a group of 70 Canadians will join comrades from more than 40 other countries on the journey to Lourdes, France from May 19 to 21.

Lourdes is a major pilgrimage site for Catholics where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local resident in 1858. Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Pigeon, Commandant of the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre, noted however, that the IMP offers a much broader experience.

“This experience of pilgrimage, I think, expands your comprehension of how each individual has their own journey and how, what I would call God as a priest, will make its way into everyone in a different way – sometimes outside the formal offerings of the church or any religious institution,” he said. “It is to realize that every human being is sacred in a way and that each of us has our own way to communicate with what is transcendent.”

LCol Pigeon speaks from first-hand experience, having been part of the Canadian IMP delegation in 2012.

“Some people were there because they’d had health issues,” he recalled. “Soldiers who have experienced combat zones need to revisit these experiences. Some of them were in that moment where they needed to take a bit of distance and review their own life. And this was certainly an environment that was facilitating that. It’s one of the paths we can use to help them develop some kind of resilience.”

Spirituality is a very individual matter, said LCol Pigeon, but soldiers also benefit from sharing the IMP experience with others.

“The spiritual experience is very intimate, very personal. But at the same time you realize, ‘I’m not the only one who is looking for some direction, purpose and meaning for my life’ and it’s a comfort.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Bélisle, Army Command Chaplain, will be one of the 70 soldiers and veterans taking part in this year’s IMP. He said the diverse delegation will include Christians, Muslims and a Buddhist as well as others of no specific faith.

“It’s a good time for them to take time and reflect,” he said. “People who have come back from Afghanistan, for example, are asking themselves the big questions in life and I think this is the right place to do so.”

All Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, and their families were eligible to apply to take the IMP, he explained, and several hundred people put their names forward for 2017. Since not every trip could be funded, only current military members and veterans were selected. Those attending take vacation time or receive approval for leave from their chain of command.

No public funds are being spent on the excursion. Support Our Troops, a program run by Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services (CFMWS) and funded by individual and corporate donations, has put up $100,000 to offset expenses for participants. Those funds will also be available to those taking the IMP in 2018 and 2019.

LCol Pigeon said his experiences at the IMP expanded his view of what it means to be a Chaplain.

“It was an opportunity to bring a group of soldiers together and minister to them or be a pastor to them in a different context and let them go on their own journey. In a pluralistic environment, as CA’s Chaplains, we are more witnesses of our own faith and spirituality than missionary. Sometimes you simply have to walk with people in silence.”

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