July 22, 2004
By the second half of the 19
th century, the industrial revolution along with many new discoveries captured the minds of intellectuals and ordinary folk alike. By 1858 Mill, Darwin and Marx had published their ideas that challenged the way people looked at the world. So many drunk with the new wine of science dethroned God from his creation and denied the supernatural. Voltaire’s sarcasm and criticism reigned. And rationalism made its wholesale rejection of basic beliefs that had sustained the human family. The absolute, sovereign authority of God; the divine creation of humankind; the immortality of the soul; the moral code, the supernatural and miracles were jettisoned as relics of the unenlightened. This rationalism seeped into religious thought and cast an ugly shadow over all faith.
Then unexpectedly at a dark and uninspiring grotto at the foot of the Pyrenees, there was a gust of wind as on Pentecost, but nothing moved. Not even the gentle leaves of the wild rose stirred. There was another sound of wind and a rustling within the cleft of Massabielle and on the grey and dull rock above the entrance to the cave, there was light and in the midst of the light Mary appeared and brightened up the darkness of the age. From February 11 to July 16 1858, eighteen times Mary appeared at Lourdes to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous who had not even received her first communion. The Blessed Mother, as Paul Claudel once said, did not come to Lourdes just to brush the soil with her feet. She came for a reason. She made the grotto of Massabielle the cave where we could once again find the Truth.
I have just returned from a pilgrimage that began at the grotto. What a grace to join the children and parents, pilgrims and tourists, the sick and the disabled and those seeking peace who have been going to Lourdes from every country and continent for almost 150 years. Lourdes is a school of faith. And the teacher is the Mother of God. For a moment I would like to share with you some of the experiences I had and some of the lessons I learned again with greater impact.
Like the rock of Mt. Sinai where Moses stood on holy ground in the presence of the other worldly, kneeling on the ground at the grotto, I realized anew how much God cares. God exists. He is not distant from us. He is present to us and at Lourdes we are once again placed in the hands of the Mother of his Son as we were on the rock of Golgotha. I had promised that I would bring all of you in my heart and I did. I placed you and your families in the gentle embrace of Mary’s love.
The message I heard at Lourdes was profoundly simple. It was the message of the gospel repeated so that even a child could understand. God longs to have us return to him with all our life. As Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming, “Repent and believe the good news,” Mary calls us sinners back to penance.
In the ninth apparition at Lourdes on February 25, the Blessed Virgin had said to Bernadette, “Go drink of the spring and wash yourself there.” But there was no water in the grotto, no spring, no gushing source. In obedience to Mary who lived her whole life in obedience to God’s will, Bernadette dug into the dirt and when there was a trickle of water, she drank and washed herself. Not a pretty sight with mud over her young face. But the ancient lesson Adam and Eve had failed to learn, Bernadette succeeded to learn, namely obedience to God always accomplishes miracles. From that little stream of water today there rises a spring that supplies 35 taps where we can drink water and 17 baths where we can wash ourselves.
For about an hour and a half in the damp summer rain, I waited in line with men, young and old, to go into the baths at Lourdes. I waited praying the rosary along with the others. Bernadette had prayed the rosary and Mary had joined her at the Our Father’s and Glory be’s. And I knew my prayer for you was joined to the powerful intercession of the Mother of God who knows our needs better than we do. I had been to Lourdes before and I shivered just at the memory alone of the plunge into the cold water awaiting me. Just before I went in, a man from Italy cried out from one of the baths, “Mama mia.” And I knew the waters had not warmed up a bit.
The baths at Lourdes shock the body, but more gently awaken the soul with the memory of the cleansing bathe of baptism. In those sacred waters, we are joined with Christ dying and rising and we die to sin, rise to new life; we are cleansed of sin and clothed in grace. Drinking the water after the bath made me remember Jesus at the well in Samaria and his promise to be the living water that quenches all our thirsts. Coming out of the water and shaking with cold, I went for the towel I had brought to dry off. The pious attendant reprimanded me in no uncertain terms that this was not permitted. So I quickly dressed and was amazed. I was dry. My 8
th grade teacher, Sr. Josephine Valenti, M.P.F, said that would happen!
After coming out of the baths and recalling that the sacrament of penance is a way to renew our baptism, a way to turn again from sin, I went to the Reconciliation chapel where priests from around the world spend hours in the holy and needed work of hearing confessions. I knelt before a young Irish priest who had given up some of his vacation to be a confessor at Lourdes; and when I came out, I had a greater sense of the mercy and forgiveness of God in my life. What a great gift for us Catholics to have so readily available at scheduled times or even by appointment the availability to go to confession, as the Church today asks us to do, one on one. What generosity and compassion those priest exercise who make themselves available for us to meet Jesus our Savior in such a personal way.
On the feast of the Annunciation, Mary finally revealed who she was. She announced, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette had no idea what that meant and had a hard time remembering how to say it. But just four years before, Pius IX had defined the dogma that Mary was conceived without original sin, pure and immaculate from the first moment of her life. Theologians had been discussing the dogma for centuries. Now from heaven Mary confirmed with her own words the infallible magisterium of the church.
One of the consequences of the rationalism that still clouds the conscience of many is the rejection of sin. And so Mary deliberately chose the name that emphasized sin and redemption. Sin does exist. But by God’s grace, she has been preserved from sin and redeemed by her Son. In this very same apparition, Mary enjoined on Bernadette and on all of us through her, “pray for sinners.” Her face was sad and her sorrow at our sins became visible in the tears of Bernadette. Whatever our sins, the cry of Mary for penance is the voice of hope. For it reminds us that God does redeem us when we acknowledge our sins and beg his forgiveness.
With the members of our pilgrimage, we celebrated the Eucharist. Somehow when we celebrate Mass in sacred places, our awareness of this mystery of faith that we have the grace to share every day becomes even greater. The silence of the sanctuary at Lourdes made even more palpable the presence of Jesus on the Cross who shares our suffering and joy, our pain and human life and makes us whole. And that holy presence pervades all of Lourdes. For Lourdes is one large monstrance where the Lord is adored and loved.
In the evening, we followed along in candlelit procession. We were blessed with more water, but the rains did not extinguish the fire in the hearts of those who sang and prayed and processed in a line that never seemed to end. It is very difficult to hold back the tears at the sight of so many people giving witness to their faith. Every age, every language, every race follow behind Mary as she leads us to Jesus, the light of the world. As we sang “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” and lifted her candles against the darkness, I could not help but think of the privilege we Catholics have of bearing the Light of Christ to the world.
On August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, our Holy Father will go to Lourdes. In prayer we join with him. Through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, may the witness of our lives enlighten the way for others to follow Jesus.