Joe and Charlotte Riley, a couple from Surprise, never had any children until last May. That’s when Gina Charrlin, 52, began referring to the retired couple as “Mom and Dad.”
The Rileys met Gina and her husband Chris when they made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France with the Order of Malta.
Each year, the 900-year-old religious order sponsors a weeklong pilgrimage to Lourdes, the site of 18 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubrious in 1858. Millions of people — many of them desperately ill — journey to Lourdes each year in search of hope and healing.
The sick, known as malades, are chosen from among those recommended by their pastors to make the trip. A physician must verify that the person is able to travel and each malade has a companion — usually a spouse or parent — who also makes the journey.
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that a major miracle occurred,” Joe Riley told The Catholic Sun. “When we went to Lourdes we had no children and when we came back we had a daughter and a son.”
Before Gina left her home in Rio Rancho, N.M., where she’d been battling advanced thyroid cancer, tests showed there were three tumors in her neck that would need to be removed upon her return to the United States.
“It was a dark cloud over my mind, that I had to go back,” Gina said. “I’ve had 21 surgeries in my life and that would have been my 22nd.”
Having cancer, she said, turns your life upside down.
“The things that mattered suddenly don’t matter,” Gina said. “Everybody handles it differently, but when you have faith, it gives you a light to hang onto, a sense of hope.”
Faith in God is something she grew up with. Her devout mother instilled a love of God in her as a young child. Earlier in life, she was carrying twins in what turned out to be an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, a life-threatening condition.
“I literally died two times that day and it changed my life, how I looked at things, how I looked at suffering,” Gina said. “It made me close to God and to my husband and to Mary.”
Doctors resuscitated her twice that day after she lost a huge amount of blood. Gina said she was in excruciating pain and had an out-of-body experience in which she saw herself with blue lips and a deathly white face, as doctors frantically called for help.
At that moment, she said she felt “this great, extreme, overwhelming love from God… His love for each of us is so immense that it would crush you in your human form.”
Little did she know that at Lourdes in 2013, she would once again experience the vast ocean of God’s love in a profoundly personal way.
On the day the malades were taken to bathe in the waters of Lourdes, Gina said she prayed that if it were God’s will, she would be healed.
“It was about 50 degrees and the water was even colder. My teeth were chattering — I was very nervous about it. I wasn’t expecting anything for myself,” Gina said. Afterward, they were taken to a church where the Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta washed the malades’ feet.
“It was the most humbling experience to have someone kiss your feet,” Gina said. “They take off your socks and shoes, the priest would say a prayer and they pour the water over your feet.”
And just like when she had bled to death years ago, she felt the immensity of God’s love wash over her.
“I felt this great sense of God’s love, of Mary’s love — I felt as though Mary was hugging me. It was amazing,” Gina said. “I went back to my room and cried for an hour.”
To this day, she weeps when she tells others what happened.
Days after arriving back in Rio Rancho, Gina’s doctor ordered a sonogram in order to assess the tumors in her neck.
“She read the test results and said, ‘Gina, there are no tumors here.’ I looked at the computer and for the first time in two years there were no tumors,” Gina said. “My husband and I fell to our knees. The doctor put her arms around me-she was crying too. She said, ‘Gina, you are cancer-free.’”
Transformed by grace
Not everyone who travels to Lourdes receives a physical healing. For some, it’s the outpouring of grace they receive that helps them bear their cross or accept their illness.
Jack and Jeanne O’Brien have been to Lourdes numerous times over the years with the Order of Malta and have seen the transformation that takes place when souls are flooded with compassion and grace.
“I remember one lady with cancer who was angry. She hadn’t come to accept it,” Jeanne said. “As the week went on, she softened. Her whole demeanor changed. By the end of the week, she had come to grips with it and saw that God had given her this to bear. That in itself is a small miracle.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who has visited Lourdes three times, said it is a place of great prayer and transformation. Some people are healed physically, but certainly many others return with a closer relationship to Christ and the Blessed Mother, he said.
“I’m always impressed by the Order of Malta, the way they care for the malades, the respect they have for them, their constant care for them and in a way that lifts up their dignity,” Bishop Olmsted said. “Everybody is there for the sick.”
John Sack, who has been a Knight of the Order of Malta for 10 years, has traveled to Lourdes seven times. He said caregivers who make the pilgrimage often experience healing too.
“The healing that happens there is a different kind of thing,” Sack said. “It’s an acceptance of the role. Becoming a caregiver is not something you ask for in life.”
One woman, he said, was having a difficult time caring for her disabled daughter but found the grace at Lourdes to persevere.
Then there are the malades who, though battling their own illnesses, are moved to relieve the suffering of others. Jeanne recalled one malade who struggled with multiple sclerosis.
About two weeks after they returned from the pilgrimage, he told her that all his symptoms were gone even though he had not asked the Blessed Mother to heal him. Instead, he offered to bear the pain that other malades were experiencing.
Over the next couple of years, the man was diagnosed with severe back problems, colon cancer and finally Parkinson’s.
“He was a man of deep faith,” Jeanne said. “He asked the Blessed Mother to give him their pain and let him carry it. I really think he carried the burden for someone else for awhile.”
That desire to serve, even at such a steep price, is what’s motivating Gina these days. She wants to return to Lourdes, not as a malade, but as a servant.
“My greatest aspiration is to become a Dame of Malta,” Gina said. “I pray every day that I have what it takes to go and be of service. That was my promise to Mary for the rest of my life. That’s what gives me joy.”
She’s already brought much joy to Joe and Charlotte Riley, the elderly, childless couple she now considers to be her parents.
“We bonded real well that first day,” Charlotte said. “That night at dinner, she asked how many kids we had. I told her none.”
“You do now,” Gina told her. The two families have been close ever since and plan to spend time together this spring.