Saturday, 11 February 2017

Our Lady of Lourdes -- 11 February

Make Way for the Sick

I first visited Lourdes in 1970 with the Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage. I was a member of a youth group whose tasks were to care for sick pilgrims, especially the younger ones, and to perform ceremonial duties. These mainly involved carrying flags in the processions and normally one of our group fainted during the hot afternoon with an impressive clatter of flagpole onto tarmac.

Many things impressed me but none more than the way in which the sick were regarded. It was as if Lourdes was really for them and everything was organised round them. The world generally seems to be organised for the able-bodied, energetic and self-sufficient. The sick, disabled and unwell must try to fight for a place in it.

In Lourdes this is reversed and the able-bodied take second place. The magic words ‘pour les malades’, for the sick, opened all doors to the sick pilgrim with his able-bodied helper in tow. It was as if the sick person was king or queen in this town, his able-bodied helper merely his servant.

The apparitions at Lourdes began on 11 February 1858. Through Saint Bernadette, Mary called on people to repent of their sins, to come for healing to the water flowing from the grotto of Massabielle, and to build a church there in which people could pray. At the last apparition Mary described herself as the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine about the graces uniquely given to Mary to prepare her to be the mother of Christ. It had been proclaimed four years earlier by Pope Pius IX and people were amazed that Bernadette could manage these words, and in her own dialect too.

Of all the Marian shrines Lourdes is the most famous. This seems right because the good things that go on there come straight from the heart of the gospel. As we listen to Luke’s account of the beatitudes, for example (Luke 6), we see how great crowds of people sought out Jesus. They were sinners, cripples, people with various physical ailments, people tormented by inner demons. They sought out the kind teacher to listen to his words and to be touched by him, to find healing. As in Galilee, so in Lourdes.

Jesus teaches them about the ‘kingdom of God’, a time or situation when God’s spirit will fill men and women, freeing them from sin so that they might live together with an understanding and a love that comes from God. This kingdom will be organised in a way that is radically different from ‘the kingdoms of this world’. The poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are persecuted and disregarded — these are the ones who are ‘blessed’ in this kingdom because their longing and need keeps them pointed in the right direction. The rich and well-fed and content and self-sufficient — well there is great danger that this kind of success and regard will turn them away from the right direction.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, understands these biblical promises fulfilled through her Son. From her lips come the words of the Magnificat: ‘his mercy is from age to age ... he scatters the proud-hearted ... casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly ... fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty’ (Luke 1). As in Galilee, so in Lourdes. It is a gospel place where the lowly and the needy gather to be with their Lord in prayer, to heed the call to repentance, to care for the sick and the poor, to look for healing.

Many wonderful things continue to happen at Lourdes. There has been, on average, one authenticated miracle every two years, happenings which medical science cannot explain. But each year there are thousands of healings which are never reported. People find peace within themselves, are reconciled with God or with others, find faith and hope again. Lourdes is a place of conversion, re-birth and new life. It is a place of prayer, many people experiencing ‘the peace beyond all understanding’ as they watch through the vigils of the night. The visit to the baths is a powerful reminder, and often a re-kindling, of the life of faith first given in baptism.

As in Galilee, so in Lourdes. Oh, except for one thing. Another clear-as-day memory from my first visit is seeing Cardinal Gray of Edinburgh walking along a crowded street in his scarlet finery, pulling hard on a cigarette. May Mary and all the saints welcome him, cigarette or no, to the heavenly kingdom.

This reflection was first published in the parish newsletter of St Dominic's, London NW5

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