The sun glistens off the white marble statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I wait on line with my dad as the man in front of us kneels to the statue and prays. It is the middle of a French afternoon and surprisingly we are the only three people in the sacred courtyard. When it is my turn, my dad pushes me in my wheelchair up to the indicated spot. I bend all the way forward in a deep bow, which is the closest I can easily get to kneeling. After a few seconds I feel a powerful but gentle presence that could only come from the Lady of Lourdes herself. I say a hail Mary then my thoughts drift to the first girl who knelt in this spot and all the things she did for God. How blessed would I be if I could just have some of her powerful faith.
The story of Our Lady of Lourdes is about the time the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the 1800s. Mary told her to dig in the ground and when she did a spring of water came up. The Lady appeared to Bernadette a total of eighteen times over a period of a few months. Bernadette was only fourteen and not yet fully educated. As one might expect, she faced much ridicule for her faith in the apparitions due to the fact that she was the only one who could see the Virgin Mother. Bernadette became a holy sister when she was a young adult and passed away when she was only thirty-three years old—the same age that the Catholic Church believes Christ died. In the days following this appearance, many people were physically healed by the water from the spring that Bernadette dug. Today, this spring has become a network of baths, and many people still go in the baths hoping to be healed. While very few people are healed physically, many people say that they are healed spiritually.
The first time I heard the story about Our Lady of Lourdes I was a teenager. I didn’t know it would have a great impact on my life until my dad and I went on a retreat to Shelter Island. Shelter Island is a community with a retreat center on the eastern end of Long Island. The youth group hosted an annual retreat there. That year I was twenty-two years old. When we went to Sunday mass as part of the retreat, we were approached by two Shelter Island parishioners. Their names were Dave and Clara. They introduced themselves and then told us that they were part of the Order of Malta and they would like to take both me and my dad on an all-expense paid trip to Lourdes, France. As you can imagine, we were a little taken aback by this offer, but once we researched it and saw that the group was legitimate, we accepted their very generous gift.
This was the first trip I would take alone with my dad. Before that we had gone only on family vacations together. I had been on many trips alone with my mother, but never with my father. This trip brought us closer together.
For my entire life I have had a great relationship with my Dad. I felt after we went to Lourdes I had more of a friendship with my Dad than a parent and child relationship. We got to talk for more hours than we ever had before. My dad had a very high-stress job as a vice president with Geico Insurance. This opportunity to spend so many days together was really important to both of us.
The trip to Lourdes would help me figure out what God truly wanted me to do for Him. There was one time before this trip that stands out in my struggle to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. This was shortly after I graduated from the youth group program and moved up to be on the adult staff. One night my friend Becky Manise was running a small group and I was assisting her. She said to the twenty teenagers that were in our group, “You are the only people that can do what you are going to do for God.” Since she taught us that lesson, it has been one of the guiding principles of my life.
At this point I was considering becoming a Roman Catholic priest. I felt that God may have been calling me to the priesthood, but I wasn’t sure. Getting to talk to my friends who are priests are some of the most enlightening moments I have experienced. I felt a gentle tug on my soul pulling me in that direction. I thought once I became a priest that I would be able to influence the church, at least in America, to be more accommodating to people with disabilities. I found, however, that every time I considered going up the ladder another wrung to become a priest, there were more and more obstacles in my way.
I now know that God was calling me to become something different than a priest, but I needed the experience of trying and knowing how difficult it is.
On the trip to France I met many priests and bishops and got to know them as people in informal conversations. I think if everyone had this opportunity to get to know high-ranking church officials personally, the church would be better understood as a caring place. In my experience, most clergymen focus on Jesus, but they also are human beings and still have flaws and fears just like the rest of us do.
I feel that priests are being severely overworked. This is harmful to their congregation. A parish pastor’s job involves one man expected to celebrate mass as well as baptisms and funerals. He also hears confessions. He is also the president of a small charity and he listens to the concerns of his flock to try to help them with their problems. A parish has many deacons and maybe one or two other priests and it still is not enough to take care of the whole congregation. For example, my parish in New York has eight thousand people and it is considered very small. A small number of those people are actually active in the parish but that is the number that are registered. I feel pastoral care, looking after the people of your congregation, is the most important function of a priest. Unfortunately, quite often, they are unable to fulfill this function due to their workload.
I became really close with my bishop from New York who traveled with our delegation to Lourdes. We had some personal conversations but they were mostly scratching the surface of what I wanted them to be. I was hoping that when I returned home I could email the bishop and we could continue to deepen our friendship after spending the week together in France. I was hoping that he could assist me with becoming a priest the way he helped my friend, Greg, from youth group. I was able to hear about the process from start to finish. I was there to witness Greg’s ordination which is the beautiful ceremony performed when a man becomes a priest. I experienced a lot of joy for my friend, Father Greg, on that day.
If I didn’t become a priest, which was still a longshot with all the challenges, at least I could attempt to get a job working in the bishop’s office. When I got back home and I saw the bishop at mass, it was a little difficult for me to get used to the distance he displayed. While I would have liked a working relationship with the bishop, this wasn’t part of God’s plan for me.
The Catholic church’s official position is that God cares about every single creature on the earth—especially human beings. As his children, we as Christians should treat every person with extreme dignity and respect. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. What I do not agree with is how the church officially says you have to be in good physical health to become a priest. This is a terrible policy because it excludes most disabled people from following their heart. No matter how qualified they are to become a priest, their physical limitations prevent this from happening. Unfortunately for me I didn’t learn this heartbreaking piece of information until I already researched becoming a priest for a few years.
Now I can see that God had a different path for me. I genuinely feel for other young men with disabilities who are passionate about the priesthood but they find out no matter how much they study their dream won’t become a reality. I chose not to pursue a career in the priesthood and just focus on my students in the youth group. I think I had a richer experience this way than I would have otherwise. I believe that it would be more congruent with the church’s position if they said, no matter your limitations, if you feel that you’re able to give your life to God and you’re willing to work to help people in a priestly manner, you should be able to pursue being a servant of Christ.
I believe that God performs two kinds of miracles in my life. Everyday ones and life altering ones. Everyday miracles are actions that happen in my everyday life where I feel the presence of God. Life altering miracles are actions where I not only feel the presence of God but I decide to make a significant change because I feel He is telling me to do so. Most of the time only God knows the difference between the two.
The three people from the Order that helped me every day at Lourdes were Charlotte, Susan and Greg. They were Knights and Danes of the Order of Malta, which are ranks in the organization. They regularly do charitable work, but their biggest project is the annual trip to Lourdes, where they volunteer for a week with people who are going on a pilgrimage to be healed. I became very close with Greg in particular. We went out in the evening together for the week I spent in Lourdes. My Dad, Greg and I went to the village bar where we met many really kind French people.
The second day of our trip was May first. It is a feast day for the Virgin Mary which is very important in the village. That night there was a beautiful procession. The streets were full of people. Hundreds of people all holding candles and singing Ave Maria. It was dusk and the light from the candles filled up the busy streets. My Dad, Greg and myself went down the street with the other worshipers.
When I was home with my friends at the youth group I always felt a warm feeling of camaraderie. It was more than that. There is a clarity of purpose that comes from Jesus when doing God’s work. I felt this same feeling in the procession that night. This is the first time I had this feeling outside my home parish.
The next day was specifically set aside for a select group of disabled people to go to the baths. There were two caves that people bathe in that are now complete with modern conveniences like electric light and adaptive equipment including lifts. When my dad and I were on line to go in the water, I couldn’t help but notice the abandoned wheelchairs, crutches and stretchers that were prominently on display at the entrance to the baths. These devices were left there by their owners when they were miraculously cured by the water. All this made me very anxious and excited that I might be physically healed.The water was freezing. I expected it to be warm! To be fair, the people assisting me did warn me that it would be cold but I didn’t think it was going to be ice cold.
When I got out of the bath, which I was only in for a couple of seconds because of the temperature, I was instantly dry. Apparently, every person who goes in the bath experiences this phenomenon. I was shocked by this. However, it was not a life altering miracle for me. It just felt like an everyday miracle to me.
Every time my balance improves or I can suddenly do something I’ve been working on that took me a long time to learn how to do, I consider that an everyday miracle. Many doctors have told me I shouldn’t be able to progress as much as I have over the years. I believe that God is helping me move forward every day.
I wasn’t healed instantly from bathing in the water. However, when I got home I physically progressed slowly and the progression has yet to stop. My balance, hand control, speech and vision all continue to improve since I came home from Lourdes. I do attribute some of my physical and spiritual healing to my time at Lourdes.
The Order of Malta recommends you don’t bring a power wheelchair to Lourdes, so I had to take my manual wheelchair. Although the town is accessible to really sick people, some of the terrain is pretty rough. Because of this, they recommend you don’t bring a power wheelchair. That week was the first week in a while I spent in my manual chair. I was often uncomfortable for little stretches of time. I needed my dad or someone else to help reposition me. Up until that point I had a very hard time when I was uncomfortable, focusing on nothing else but how to get out of that position. On the Sunday of the week we were at Lourdes, we went to mass in a stadium with thousands of people. My dad and Greg had to sit in a different section than me. I think this was due to us arriving at mass a little bit late so my section only had one spot. The mass was probably the longest mass I’ve ever attended. It was over three hours long.
As you can imagine, I got very uncomfortable in my chair in the middle of mass. I also got very thirsty. I prayed that my dad or Greg would come check on me so that I could have a drink. A woman whom I did not know, wearing the Order of Malta uniform, came over and offered me some water. I, of course, accepted. She not only helped me with the drink but also said kind things to me even though I cannot remember what they were. When the mass was over I asked Greg, who was regularly part of the organization, if he knew who that woman was. He said he did not. He then shared with me there was not a woman who fit that description with us on the trip. I continued to look for the woman for the remaining days we were there. I never found her. I believe that she was an angel. Even if she is a real person, she was acting like an angel at the moment she helped me. This was one of the most direct holy moments I’ve ever had. I had many other spiritual experiences on that trip but none as powerful as that one.
I returned to New York with a new spiritual awareness as well as a wider, more in depth, view of the Catholic Church than I had before. I was also able to share many of my extraordinary travels with my students in the youth group who I hope were able to learn from my experiences.
4 May, 2023