Inside a small, unassuming chapel on Rue de la Visitation in Paray-le-Monial about 20 wooden pews face a simple stone altar and a colourfully painted mural depicting the Apparition of Christ to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. Sitting on one of these pews, Irma De Guzman discovers a profound connection between this French town and her home in Melbourne, Australia.
The crypt underneath the Lower Basilica, while not ornate, is tremendously impressive. As travellers gather on the cobblestone streets that line the basilica square, the pilgrim group celebrates a private Mass in the early morning before the doors are opened to the public, metres away from the tomb of St Francis. For 76-year-old Marlies Smitfoort, the town is one of many in Italy that stand testimony to incredible faith and dedication.
“These are churches that were built centuries ago by believing people, by people who were not going to be alive to see that building finished because some would take maybe 200 years to finish. That is incredible,” she says. “I find that very inspirational that there were people putting in the foundations … and would know they would never, ever see the finished product. “
“Despite the fact that there were so many people, it was still a very solemn experience. We heard Mass in English, and there were Bishops from all the different military groups, and their homilies were very moving. And even though there was noise outside, the moment you step inside the Basilica, it was silent and solemn.”
It was like they were sharing their souls when they shared their stories and their faith. It was so enriching for everybody.
Irma took the opportunity during one afternoon in Lourdes to visit the miraculous Baths. “What an experience – it was unforgettable, totally amazing. It was, honestly, indescribable,” she says, recalling the awe she felt. “You don’t expect it while you’re waiting in line, but the experience is totally beautiful. My whole body and my head were submerged and my hair is quite long, but when I got out my hair was dry and I had to think, ‘Did that just happen?’ It was such an impossible, out of this world experience. It will stay with me forever.”
So too, will her connection with Mary through the Rosary. “On the pilgrimage, we prayed the Rosary every day, and I’ve continued that,” Irma says. “When we pray the Rosary we pray for the whole world, for peace in the world; it brings us together as part of the whole Catholic community. There are so many experiences I’ve had, where people have come to me with desperate or impossible situations and I’ve promised to pray for them, and then I get their feedback that something is fixed or healed, or things have improved. I can categorically say that the power of prayer is real.”