Members of the Canadian Armed Forces contingent attend the International Military Pilgrimage in Lourdes, France from 16 to 21 May 2018. (Photo: Sgt DG Janes, Directorate of Army Public Affairs)


By Bdr Michael Mikhail

Posted on Thursday August 9, 2018

PEACE ON EARTH - this is the theme for the 60th annual International Military Pilgrimage 2018.

In this season of darkness and turmoil the harvest is heavily saturated with contrite hearts and broken spirits. The pangs of suffering of men, women and children all over the world is ever present and is manifested through the collective physical, mental and emotional brokenness that seems to have swept a generation like a sudden onset epidemic of pain. Peace on Earth is a basic and simple theme - basic and simple, both of which we could all benefit greatly from in this postmodern reality, where basic and simple have become scarce commodities.

I am ashamed to admit that on my inbound trip into Lourdes, France from Garrison Petawawa to take part in EX RESILIENT WARRIOR SPIRIT, I have greatly succumbed to the tremendous weight of the daunting task ahead of our global community to fix what is broken. While basic and simple, Peace on Earth comes with a heavy price tag of labour. We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. It is now - as it was in the early days of the apostles: “…The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” - Matt 9:37. I have succumbed not in surrender to the brokenness, only to the weight of it. Alone, it feels like I simply cannot do this - I cannot affect change nor can I be changed.

It felt as though I was doing something wrong. I was not excited. I didn’t have the anxious butterflies that come naturally with going to a new place. Walking from my home to the taxi, running from the taxi to the airport, hearing the boarding call to fly from Ottawa to Detroit, taking an overnight flight to Paris, arriving in a different time zone - in a different season, these mini experiences would be something to look forward too, even be excited about. But I felt alone. I was, quite literally alone because I did not meet my Canadian colleagues until we crossed paths at the Orly airport on the south side of Paris. A genuine smile parts way with my face as I see a member from my unit, 2 RCHA. Against my will, however, I swiftly remove myself from that happy place and the weight I had felt before overcomes me once again.

Hotel Christina is a beautiful little building at the base of the mountainous region of Lourdes, France. It looks right onto the river that passes through the valley and is home to the Canadian, Croatian and Ivory Coast military delegations. On taking the final step off the bus at the hotel, my racing thoughts and heavy heart were interrupted by what sounded like brass instruments. I could barely hear the music through my thoughts, but there was definitely music. I collected my bags and focussed my attention to my front so I could walk without bumping into anyone and not ten metres ahead of me, the whole of the Ivory Coast’s marching band was in the street in front of the hotel playing their incredible brass and percussion songs. People were dancing, flags were waving, flashes were pulsing and everyone was laughing and smiling. I could not help it, I was infected by the warmth of the Cote d’Ivoire! I threw my bags to the ground, took my camera out, and started taking pictures. Though, it was hard to keep the camera stable with the infectious rhythm coursing through me.

The following morning was the official first day and opening ceremonies of the International Military Pilgrimage. The Canadian delegation took a group picture in front of the basilica, conducted our administrative points meeting, met all the Canadian staff and received some powerful testimonies and words of encouragement from [Padre] Maj Turner and [Padre] Maj Pigeon. Lunch time quickly followed where, for the first time, all three nations gathered together to eat in one dining area. The Croatians were uncharacteristically reserved, the Ivory Coast were uncharacteristically quiet and the Canadians remined perfectly in character and kept all movements to a bare minimum, all conversations to dull whisper.

In the seven hours between lunch and dinner, everything changed. It only took a few hours for three nations from three different continents to embrace the others as their own and grant each other entry into their cultures displaying their unique, beautiful, true colours to one another. At dinner, the Croatians lead the entire dining hall in prayer before our meal, the Ivory Coast’s band shook the foundations of the building with their tunes and the Canadians remained perfectly calm and whispered just a bit louder as to not disturb the other nations. That is, until the full might of the 2 CMBG pipes and drums descended upon the entire dinner hall enchanting everyone into full musical frenzy. The Canadians played, then the Ivory Coast played, then the Croatians sang, then the Ivory Coast played again and soon enough, everyone was in a great hurry to end dinner so that the rest of the night could be had in similar fashion out on the town. Later that night, surrounded by thousands of visitors, armies, and locals, the 2 CMBG pipes and drums stole the spot light as they played and sang with the Irish pipes and drums. The collaboration set the stage for the remainder of a very long night of international mingling.

After having spent the night in the thick haze of camaraderie, the overwhelming atmosphere at breakfast the following morning was not that of a hotel hosting three different army delegations - but a mansion where one gigantic family dwells in synergistic harmony. The “Reserved for Canada” signs on our tables had little to no effect on the Croatian and Ivory Coast friends we made the night before.

The buzz at the breakfast tables was a constant note of broken English, hand gestures and newly acquired Croatian words. Everyone appeared to have donned the innocence of their 8 year old selves as they compared newly traded patches and uniform accoutrements. Between our pipes and drums being hailed as heroes and the Irish band keeping time with their pints of beer against the tables as they sang in sync, the Ivory coast’s infectious rhythm and the Croatian’s deep tenor chorus the entirety of the three delegations shed their differences and took up the whole loving embrace of the true meaning of brothers and sisters in arms.

After only the first day on the ground in Lourdes, I have made lifelong friends, strengthened already existing friendships, and experienced coming togetherness that I have never truly felt before. I feel lighter than I have felt in a very long time.

The Weight had not been lifted, the Weight remains the same, unchanged. It is I who has become stronger - it is I who has changed.