By STEPHEN O'KANE | Published February 14, 2013
ATLANTA—Millions of faithful people travel to Lourdes, France, every year seeking healing and forgiveness. It was no different for Bob Milani and his son, Jack, who traveled there with the Order of Malta last year seeking physical healing for Jack’s mitochondrial myopathy.
The story of Lourdes is well known, especially among Catholics. In 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared some 18 times to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl, in the small town located in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains of southern France.
Countless miracles of healing have been attributed to the location, with water from the natural spring in the grotto traditionally believed to hold healing properties. The Catholic Church has officially recognized more than 60 miraculous healings at the grotto, after medical investigations, though there are thousands more claims made by pilgrims over the years.
This reputation is what drew Milani to initially consider making a pilgrimage with his son. Through a friend, he learned the Order of Malta makes an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes and decided he would discern if it was the right thing for his son.
“I had a passing knowledge of the Order of Malta, but I did not know they had a chapter locally,” he said. “The quality of the people is just exceptional. They are very devoted to the faith.”
Each year the Order of Malta takes a number of “malades,” a French term for those who are sick or disabled, who make the pilgrimage in hopes of receiving healing for their various illnesses, to Lourdes. After learning Jack qualified, arrangements were made and before they knew it they were on a plane to France.
For Jack, who was 10 at the time, it was his first time traveling outside of the United States. He was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the French countryside and recognized immediately the strong faith of the people in this region of France.
“It was really cool. The culture was a lot different, and especially the part we were in, the people were very religious,” said Jack.
Jack and his dad kept a daily blog during the pilgrimage to capture the details and emotions of each day. They catalogued their experiences with words and pictures and now share it with people interested in learning more about a Lourdes pilgrimage. It is a great way to look back and relive the experience, Bob Milani said.
The excitement was palpable for the Milanis. Hearing stories of healings and miracles, they were enjoying daily Mass and rosaries and looking forward to the day they visited the baths.
“I was hoping to come out with a physical miracle,” said Jack. “I didn’t get one, which is OK because I came out with a spiritual miracle, coming closer to God. … To see where Mary stood … you could just feel God was there.”
Jack recalls the process of entering the “locker room,” undressing and then entering the bath, which he said was ice cold. While it may have been a little different than Jack expected, he felt changed when he emerged from the waters.
“The water felt so good. It was the best bath I’ve ever had,” Jack said, adding that the whole process was very emotional.
Besides visiting the grotto and spring at Lourdes, Jack and his father were able to visit the home of St. Bernadette and attend daily Mass with other pilgrims. The best part for Jack was being able to serve as an altar server during a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
“One day, (Cardinal Wuerl) asked me and another malade to be altar servers,” said Jack. “I got to hold Cardinal Wuerl’s crozier … and I was the first person to get the healing of the sick, which was really cool.”
The pilgrimage was also a powerful experience for Bob Milani, who received some spiritual healing of his own.
“It inspired me to take my faith to a whole other level,” he said.
Witnessing his son interacting with strangers and putting his faith in God was a powerful testament to him, he said.
“What I enjoyed most was just watching my son open like a flower blooming. He just fit right in,” said Milani. “Just watching him be him” was a great blessing.
The compassion that the Order of Malta showed toward them was also powerful, he said. So much so that Bob is currently in the discernment process of becoming a Knight with the Order of Malta.
“They are so service-focused and compassionate when it comes to taking care of their ‘precious little malades,’” he said. “I was just absolutely overwhelmed by their spirit of generosity and giving.”
“The people were very nice and they really … accommodated us very well,” added Jack.
The only regret Milani has about the trip is that his wife and daughter were unable to join them. But they are planning to go back as a family within the next two years.
“I’ve never seen my son happier,” said Milani.
While a miraculous physical healing may not have happened, both learned to appreciate their faith and their family a little more and for that they are grateful.
“God has always been in my life and always helped me,” Jack said, adding that his family has been a crucial source of support for him.
“I didn’t go as a malade, but as Father Mullins said to us as we washed our hands and faces with the healing waters of Lourdes, we are all malades. Yes we are,” Bob wrote on the blog during the last day of the pilgrimage. “I watched my son go from a shy and reserved malade to a vibrant and alive soul, befriended and loved by all. He found healing in Lourdes, not a physical healing as he had hoped, but a much greater emotional healing. I found healing, too. It is not easy to be the parent of a special needs kid. But the stories of the malades and the Knights and Dames, helped me to understand that we all suffer equally, just in different ways. The miracle of Lourdes is to accept our illnesses and diseases, while faithfully carrying the burden of our suffering. It’s also helping others to find their way and to be there for them when they feel they cannot go on.”
“There is nothing you can say to fully reveal the beauty and splendor of a trip to Lourdes. It’s an inexplicable journey—meant to be experienced in person,” Bob wrote. “So many people related their first experience to me. They suggested that they had struggled to understand why Lourdes was such a significant experience in the lives of others and were told from pilgrims that they had to experience the journey for themselves to fully appreciate its significance. They only ‘got it’ after they too had made the pilgrimage. I get it now too.”