Bishop John Dolan will make this year’s annual Sovereign Order of Malta Pilgrimage to Lourdes alongside the ill and infirm who will travel with the organization.

“Fantastic. That is awesome,” exclaimed Terra Billingsley, 58, one of three malades from the Diocese of Phoenix who will be with the Order’s Western U.S. Association April 30 thru May 8 at the southern French town in the Pyrenees Mountains. The town includes the grotto where 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous encountered 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858.

“He will make the pilgrimage even more special,” said Dame Roxanne Schroer, DM, of the Order of Malta, who coordinates the trip for the Diocese of Phoenix malades.

The word is French for an ill or sick person.

“You think of him reverently, (but) he’s one of us,” she said of Bishop Dolan. “The malades are going to love it.”

The pilgrimage will be the bishop’s first to Lourdes. It also will be his first trip with the Order of Malta.

His predecessor, Bishop emeritus Thomas J. Olmsted, also made the pilgrimage with the Order.

“The Knights and Dames of Malta have a long history of assisting those who are struggling with physical health-related issues,” said Bishop Dolan. “And they accompany them to the waters of Lourdes. This is really the buzzword for our Church — ‘accompaniment — what Pope Francis encourages us to do. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, accompanies (us), especially those struggling in life, so it fits very well with my own spirituality,” the bishop stated.

“We are all going to struggle with our health eventually, and the sooner we get about accepting this cross and the pains and the disabilities we might have, and attach that to our spiritual journey with Jesus, the better we will be.”


Founded in the 11th century as a military entity to protect and care for religious pilgrims, the Order of Malta’s core mission today is medical and humanitarian projects carried out as a civilian sovereign. The Order is active in 120 countries worldwide. Its Western U.S. Association has been leading pilgrimages to Lourdes for years.

Each malade’s expenses are paid by the Order. They are joined by a caregiver — usually a spouse, family member or friend — who pays his or her own way.

A number of the Order’s Knights and Dames will be there as well, supporting and assisting the malades to ensure their health, safety, and enjoyment.

“My personal goal is to provide, to the best of my ability, comfort; sharing with them, to ease their burden and help them carry their cross,” said Steve Jerome, a Knight with the Order of Malta and a pilgrimage team captain. “Then, I will have made a difference in their life.”


It is not unusual for a bishop to accompany the group.

Last year’s pilgrims included Bishop Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif.

Western U.S.A. Association Chancellor Timothy Jeffries, KM, said Bishop Dolan will be one of six Western U.S. bishops traveling in 2024.

The Order covers their expenses.

“We’re deeply honored Bishop Dolan will be joining us. We’re certain the pilgrimage will bless him, and he will bless countless many. I am looking forward to him having the blessed opportunity to simply be a priest and minister to the sick and dying,” Jeffries told The Catholic Sun.

Malades are picked on the recommendation of a pastor, priest or lay minister, or a Knight or Dame. The information includes a description of the person’s medical condition. A doctor must confirm the nominee can handle the cross-global flight from Los Angeles to Tarbes, France, which is followed by a 25-minute bus ride to Lourdes.


The malades expressed gratitude, humility and even surprise at their selection.

A patient with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks the body’s plasma cells, Billingsley received radiation, immunotherapy, and traditional chemotherapy before finally undergoing a transplant of her own healthy stem cells to replace infected ones. Plasma cells produce a protein that is key to fighting infection by finding and attacking germs, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Still, the St. Paul in Phoenix parishioner felt others more worthy of going.
“There are a lot of people suffering. Why am I getting to go, and they are not?” she wondered.

“I was told, ’You are meant to go. The Blessed Mother wants you there’,” she said.
Fellow malade Lynda Melton had similar thoughts.

Diagnosed last summer with Stage 3 lung cancer, the parish manager of St. Maria Goretti in Scottsdale said her pick was unexpected.

“There are many others in a much more dire position than I,” Melton, 62, said. “I was completely surprised and very humbled to know Our Lady is inviting me. She’s calling me, so I’m going.”

Billingsley and Melton will be traveling with their husbands of 29 and 32 years, respectively. The Billingsleys will celebrate their 30th anniversary the day before they leave.

While in Lourdes, the pilgrims will attend daily Mass at one of several local churches, have their feet washed by Knights and Dames, take part in a candlelight procession, and spend plenty of time in prayer and reflection, among other activities.

They also will make numerous visits to the grotto where Soubirous encountered the Marian apparitions. One of the Masses will be celebrated there.

Patron of the ill, St. Bernadette was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1933.


The Order also brings thousands of prayer requests from around the world to the grotto, whose waters are said to possess healing qualities.

While physical miracles have been tied sometimes to Lourdes, the Order emphasizes its spiritual takeaways.

A cancer patient nearly 20 years ago and traveling as a malade, Schroer said the disease went into remission for 15 years before returning.

“People get the miracle they need; not necessarily the one they want,” she said.

For Schroer, that turned out to be a profound spiritual recalibration.

“Things that don’t matter do not seem as important anymore,” she explained. “For one thing, you want to be a better person.”

Bishop Dolan, who has traveled to the Holy Land, Rome, England and Peru, said he, too, is anticipating his own experience even as he walks with the malades.

“I always come away with a deeper and more profound connection with God and with God’s people,” he said of his past pilgrimages. “I’m not sure how that will unfold (in Lourdes), but I do know that it will be a life-changing experience.”