By the time you read this I shall be back in St. Matthews, but as I write I am in Lourdes. I have been here several times but never on a major Marian feast. Today is 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption. There are huge crowds here today and it is very hot. We only arrived here yesterday and I was a bit taken aback by the security presence both in and around the grotto. There is the unarmed staff at the gates of the grotto checking bags as pilgrims enter. Then there are groups of armed gendarmerie, and finally there are armed members of the French army. Needless to say I make no judgement on any of these groups, they are doing what they need to do. They are there to protect us. Sadly the threat is real. Perhaps even more awful is the fact that religion, and worship and people at prayer could so easily, yet again be the target of those who use violence to further their cause.
As I sat and observed this blanket of security I once again noticed all the sick people that are in Lourdes today. Many of these are in wheelchairs, some on stretchers. They are being drawn or pushed by an army of volunteers. The final group that I became conscious of was the priests. I guess it’s more accurate to say I began to observe the dress of the priests. They were gathering for Mass on this beautiful Feast day. As they arrived to vest many were attired in a light shirt and trousers. Some of these shirts were black or grey clerical shirts, many were not. What was very noticeable was the many, mostly young men, who arrived in a full black cassock and a large Roman collar. Now I find it hard to explain that these groups, both on their own and collectively in some strange way moved me.
On seeing these young men, and some women, as they guarded the shrine with their guns, I was struck that they did so with their lives. I thought of how France has suffered in recent times. I thought of the dignity of the French. In addition to this the courage of the sick moved me. Many of them clearly had suffered much, and yet so many of them were singing, praying, smiling. Then there is the Church, the priesthood. So many expressions of it. Some of them, though not all of them, claiming to be better than the other. Many of these, no rather many of us, spending valuable time and energy trying to work out who is traditional, who is progressive, conservative or liberal. There is so much division in the world. Oftentimes there is deep disunity among those who profess to be brothers and sisters. So much sickness, and of course the every growing threat of violence. In all this I was prompted to ask what is the message of Lourdes to today’s world? Strangely I also felt prompted to turn not to the Lord himself, nor indeed his mother Mary, the ‘Lady of Lourdes’, but rather to Bernadette. I guess I felt confident that she would bring me to the beautiful Lady. I have absolute and total confidence that the said Lady always brings us to her Son.
I have been walking with Bernadette here in Lourdes for a couple of days. Bernadette Soubirous. She is a great companion to have here in Lourdes. She is beautiful. I am sure you all remember Jennifer Jones in the title role in The Song of Bernadette. I can tell you, my friends, the real Bernadette is as beautiful as that and much much more. Of course I am not confining myself to physical beauty, though I am including it. Her beauty lies in her story. At the core of her story is the eighteen apparitions that took place from 11th February to 16th July 1858. Of course Bernadette has a life both before and beyond these apparitions but they do frame the message of Lourdes. Bernadette did not have an easy life. Dire poverty and ill health was her origin. The apparitions for the most part at least originally brought her ridicule and the suggestion from a few that she was unstable. The end of her life continued to be marred by sickness. I see her gasping in her asthma. I see her choking for air. In her last years in the convent I see her isolation, her loneliness. Here she is misunderstood and sometimes resented. She is dead at thirty-five.
Yet there is much to be learned from Bernadette and Lourdes. We learn humility, sincerity and purity of heart. We learn that not only do the poor and the sick matter but that they have a special place in the heart of Jesus and consequently in our evolving salvation story. Lourdes reminds us that we are called to unity, and that that unity is best expressed in Christ but begins in our common sisterhood and brotherhood. Of course apart from the draw to unity this has implications for how we treat each other. In the light of Lourdes we begin to realise that arguments about how we express our faith or the labels we seek to attach to each other matter less in the face of poverty, sickness and suffering. Actually what matters here is that we dig deep to be compassionate with one another and that we place our faith hope and trust in Jesus.