Pastoral theme 2015 : Lourdes, the joy of mission
Dear Lourdes pilgrims, I have pleasure in informing you that the pastoral theme for 2015 which we are proposing to all pilgrims coming to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is: “Lourdes, the joy of mission”. You will fi nd two parts:
• A refl ection on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (28:16-20) where the disciples are sent out on their mission.
• A second part where I take delight in sharing with you three personal experiences at the heart of a Christian community driven by the spirituality of the Message of Lourdes. These three experiences are essentially missionary and touch upon three major topics of our times: marriage, the missionary role of the laity and poverty.
May these refl ections help you to prepare well for your pilgrimage, but especially help you to become missionary-disciples of
Him who sent us out on a mission: Christ, the Lord of History. I want to remind you that these refl ections were inspired to a great extent by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation: “The joy of the Gospel"
Father Horacio Brito, Rector of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
I - Reflection on the Gospel (Mt. 28, 16-20)
“Meanwhile the eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them. When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (Mt. 28,16-20)
An apparent contradiction
“Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here and to have people come here in procession.” Th us Our Lady spoke to Bernadette on the 2nd of March 1858. Father Sempé, the first rector of the sanctuary, and the chaplains answered this request to the letter, and so were born the Crypt, the basilicas of the Immaculate Conception, of the Rosary and of St Pius X... However, this request hides an apparent contradiction. Note, I say “apparent”. In fact, it supposes the construction of a chapel near the village of Lourdes, while there already existed in the village – and still exists – the parish church of Lourdes. So, why two chapels?
It is in the light of the gospel that we fi nd an answer to this “apparent contradiction”. But, above all, I would like it to be clear that Our Lady does not want to put two churches in opposition to one another. On the contrary, it is a question of one and the same Church. We know from the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God, that He did so by his Word, his acts of mercy and healing, but, above all, by the gift of his life on the cross. Th is proclamation of the Good News will take place, fi rst and foremost, in a precise location in Palestine, Galilee, called for that reason “Galilee of the nations” (Mt. 4, 15), probably because of its cosmopolitan population. Yes, Galilee was a “peripheral land”; geographically and culturally, the religious centre and the political power weren’t to be found there. It is in this place that the Risen Jesus will instruct his disciples: “Go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there” (Mt. 28, 10). Th is predilection of the Lord for Galilee indicates nothing if not his choice of the poor and all humankind. Th e Kingdom of God is not only for the elite but for all, for “all the nations”: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations...” (Mt. 28,19).
Saint Paul at first, then the whole Church, will embrace this command of the Lord and thus the Gospel will grow in all its missionary dimension. It is there that we fi nd the explanation of this “apparent contradiction” in Mary’s instruction to build a church near the village of Lourdes. She teaches us again that the Church is not called to occupy the centre of our society, but is urged to move perpetually towards the outskirts. The Church! Forever missionary, forever serving, forever committed to all, forever sent out.
“Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ.” (Pope Francis: “The joy of the Gospel” 49).
The Lord does not want the Gospel to be kept within the walls of Jerusalem; there must be missionary activity. Our Lady does not meet with Bernadette in the parish church, but at Massabielle. So, what is this Church?
“When they saw him, they fell down before him, though some hesitated” (Mt. 28,17).
The Gospel tells us: “they fell down before him...they hesitated”: it is no different today. The Good News, the message of the Resurrection is fascinating and at the same time doubt creeps into our spirit. Yes, we are ready to fall down before him and adore the Lord and yet to doubt his presence. Oh, how often that has happened to us. Grace and sin, the divine and the human, and our lives swing, I would suggest, between faith and doubt. Faith which needs doubt and doubt which needs faith, in such a way that neither monopolises Christ’s place in our lives. And it is in the middle of this spiritual battle, a sign of good spiritual health, that the life of a Christian unfolds.
It is in the middle of these shadows and this light that we go forward. But the Lord tells us: “I am with you always to the end of time” (Mt. 28, 20).
The bible shows in a permanent way that when God created the world with his Word, he expressed
his satisfaction saying that it was “good” (Gn. 1, 21), and when he created human beings with the breath from his mouth, man and woman, he said that “it was very good” (Gn. 1, 21). The world created by God is beautiful. We go forward as part of a divine design of wisdom and love. But that original beauty has been sullied and wounded by sin. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery, God recreated man making of him a son and he gave him the guarantee of a new heaven and a new earth (Rv. 21, 1). We carry within us the image of the first Adam, but we have also been called, from the beginning, to become the image of Jesus Christ, the new Adam (1 Cor. 15, 45). Creation carries the mark of the Creator and wants to be free, and to ”enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God” (Rm. 8,21). So, what is this Church which is sent out to proclaim the Good News? It is a Church both human and divine, rich with the love and mercy of God, composed of men and women who are saints because, by the grace of their Baptism, they belong to Christ and, at the same time, are sinners.
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” (Mt. 28,19-20)
In this sending us out as missionaries, the Lord expects us to take three steps.
1. Missionaries both committed and convincing.
Firstly, he tells us: “Make disciples”, we must make disciples, not Him. He has entrusted that to us. Even if the mission does not belong to us, it has been entrusted to us as a gift and as a grace.
It is a joy to have met the Lord and to have been sent out by Him bearing the treasure of the Gospel. Being a Christian is not a task, but a gift: God the Father has blessed us in Jesus Christ, his Son, the Saviour of the world.
It is a grace to have met the Lord and to be his missionary-disciples. The joy of the disciple is an antidote to a world which is afraid of the future and which has been exhausted by violence and hate. The joy of the disciple is not a feeling of selfish well-being but a certainty born of faith, which calms the heart and makes it possible to proclaim the good news of the love of God. To know Jesus is the best gift which anyone can receive. To have met him is the best thing that has happened to us in our lives, and to make him known by our words and our lives is our Christian duty.
Why am I a Christian! Firstly because someone has witnessed to the presence of the Lord in his/her life
and this witness has touched me. My father, my mother, a friend, a priest, a catechist , this ”someone” sends me on to persons in my circle,... the fertility of our lives does not only have a biological impact on our lives, it also has a spiritual impact. “Make disciples” is an appeal to be fertile. Bernadette “made” lots of disciples. Where are they? It’s us, the Lourdes pilgrims. This Sanctuary exists through the will of Our Lady and thanks to the witness of Bernadette.
What is it that Mary, the mother of God, passes on to Bernadette here in Lourdes? Through her words and her actions, she reveals and bears witness to her own experience as a disciple of her Son, Christ, of her Christian life. What does Bernadette pass on to us? What is her witness, her testimony? Bernadette gives us her personal encounter with the Mother of God. This encounter is a sign of another, the one with Christ.
In conclusion, the meeting between Mary and Bernadette lets us discover the person of Christ. At the heart of a pilgrimage, steeped in the Word of God, in prayer and in charity, we discover the presence of Christ in our midst. Thus, we become disciples of one another: “For where two or three meet in my name, I will be there with them” (Mt. 18, 20).
This first missionary and communal dimension of pilgrimage is very important. That means that the witness of one and all, the meeting of pilgrims, prayer, the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and real acts of charity are strong occasions of evangelisation and sharing of faith.
2. A spiritual life
The second strand is baptism: “Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Whoever belongs to Christ is involved, by their baptism, in the life of the Trinitarian God. He/She no longer belongs to mankind, but to God alone, who welcomes him/her into the community of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is in God that man will experience his true dignity, that of sons and daughters of God: “The truth is that only in the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Con. Vat.II. Gaudium Spes. 22).
We could define this second strandof the missionary-disciple as the mystical or spiritual strand of our lives. Not because we are going to experience apparitions or extraordinary thoughts. But quite simply because we have a plus, something extra, to bring to our society, our Christian spirituality.
“Whenever we say that something is “spirited”, it usually refers to some interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity. Spirit-filled evangelization is not the same as a set of tasks dutifully carried out despite one’s own personal inclinations and wishes. How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts. A spirit-filled evangelization is one guided by the Holy Spirit, for he is the soul of the Church called to proclaim the Gospel. Before offering some spiritual motivations and suggestions, I once more invoke the Holy Spirit. I implore him to come and renew the Church, to stir and impel her to go forth boldly to evangelize all peoples.” (Pope Francis, “The joy of the Gospel” 261). “Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work. Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelization, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals only reach a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel. What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity.
Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervour dies out. The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercession, the prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life. Even so, “we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation”. There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.” (Pope Francis, “The joy of the Gospel” 262).
3. A coherent life
The third strand which the Lord expects of a missionary-disciple consists in obeying the commandments: “Teach them to obey all the commands I gave you”. This is the ethical dimension of our lives, in the choices we make, in the position we take in our society with regard to peace, justice, fraternity, the conception of life, charity. Ethical choices we make based on the Gospel are already a missionary activity which ourworld needs.
“But evangelisation would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social.” (Pope Paul VI. “The proclamation of the Gospel” 29).
It is not enough to experience God, to feel close to Him, to feel his saving presence and to be in Him. Faith demands that we follow all the commandments that Jesus has given us and which, at the same time, we pass on to others. The Lord has not only taught us about the merciful God that we pray to in full confidence and with whom we feel safe, he has formed us into a Church and he has given his Church the help of the Holy Spirit. And it is through and in the teaching of the Church that the Lord, today, invites us to make our lives conform to the Word of Jesus and, in so doing, to bear witness to his message, a message which offers us new possibilities.
Pope Francis invites us to take the Good News to the “existential outskirts” and the first “outskirt” is to
be found in our own lives. There are still areas in our inner thoughts, in our emotional lives, in our actions, in our spirit, in our will which have not been lit up by the light of the Gospel. There are areas in our lives as mothers or fathers, in our priestly ministry, in our religious lives, in our lives as students or as hospitaliers... which have not been touched by the grace of the Good News. May each one of us be the first missionary in our own life!
“Pray to God for the conversion of sinners”, Bernadette will take on this invitation of the Lady as a mission, perhaps the defining mission of her life: “Holy Mary, pray for me, a poor sinner!”
She prays for herself, she prays for others...
“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it.” (Pope Francis, “The joy of the Gospel” 183).
II - Sharing experiences
The light of Lourdes on some issues of today. Personal testimony. “There is a Marian “style” to the Church’s work of evangelization. Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.” (Pope Francis. “The joy of the Gospel” 288).
Has the missionary message of Lourdes something to say to us today, one hundred and fifty seven years after the events, a long period during which the world has completely changed?
Perhaps it would not be possible to update events of another kind. But God’s reality is different. As we
will see later, there is no difficulty in updating the message Mary confided to Bernadette Soubirous. Above all, this is due to its relationship with the Gospel. We know fine well that the Gospel is valid in all ages.
The message of Lourdes is a grace: as such, we welcome it, we live it. “God’s grace takes many forms” (1 P. 4, 10) and, consequently, it expresses itself in several ways. So, the message cannot be reduced
to a single aspect, whatever its importance. For some, Lourdes is miracles; for others, the sick; for others still, the youth, processions, hospitality or pilgrimages. The list could go on. Lourdes is all that but
not that. Because, like any grace, it is living matter which is given to us to light up our lives, to help us achieve fullness, that is to say happiness.
Since the message of Lourdes is a grace, it cannot be contained, it will always seek to overflow and, like all grace, it is missionary. In the light of this grace, I would like to share with you three personal, missionary experiences which touch upon certain aspects of today: marriage, the involvement of the laity and poverty.
A word of warning: It must be taken into consideration that these facts which I am about to tell you are the result of a personal, pastoral would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to experience with numerous families and young university students who wanted to live the spirituality which springs from the message of Lourdes. Today they constitute a spiritual family which we call “the Lourdes family”. Thus, we will be able to get the feedback of several lay persons, men and women, living in my home town, Tucuman, at the foot of the Andes, in the north of Argentina, who are trying to live as Bernadette put it: “Everyday I make (we make) my pilgrimage to the Grotto.”
The common thread of these thoughts will be the fact that grace, which supposes nature without destroying it or ignoring it, implies the possibility of going from one reality to another, from one world to another, as Mary promised Bernadette. These experiences are like the echo of that invitation which Pope John Paul II gave us to “pass from devotion to Mary to life with Mary”. They are also like a response to the invitation given by Pope Benedict XVI to Latin-American Christians: “I invite you to be no longer the continent of hope but rather to become the Continent of Love”.
Marriage, the couple
One day, a woman confided in me that she had discovered that she was very unhappy in her marriage.I asked her, a bit naively, what had happened. She told me: “At first, I saw all that was positive in our relationship; then, I discovered all that was negative: we as a couple going backwards, the impossibility of making one another happy.” When this woman had got married, she was confident that her husband would collaborate in achieving happiness change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it.” (Pope Francis, “The joy of the Gospel” 183) for both of them and he had promised the lot: work, money, success.The problem was in the fact that love, having been separated from the first source which is encountering the other person, was dying. Consequently, the process was not directed towards liberation or completion but was advancing inexorably like a sickness.
The evangelist Mark tells us: “Jesus now went up into the hills and summoned those he wanted. So they came to him and he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to preach, with power to cast out devils. And so he appointed the Twelve.” (Mk 3. 14-15).
In this account, there are three moments: firstly, Jesus calls his disciples to stay with him. Secondly, there is the discovery of the reality of sin and redemption, summarised in the expression: “He sent them out to preach and cast out demons.” The third moment is a moment of fertility, of communion: Jesus institutes the Twelve, the community.
Why does Jesus firstly call his disciples, not to work or to do something, but quite simply to “stay with him”? The answer is easy: it is because the greatest happiness for any person is to contemplate God.
We are all called to the highest of contemplations: that of contemplating God. In fact, Mary is called by God, not to “do” anything but to “be” the mother of God. Thus, God places himself in the depths of Mary’s purpose, her vocation. The meeting of Mary and Joseph also takes place, in the first instance, at this level. It is quite simply the grace of the encounter.
In the message of Lourdes, the first seven apparitions underline this pattern; it is a profound encounter of two people; even silence suggests something at this stage. Words are only spoken during the third apparition and they are an invitation to happiness. We could even say that Mary appears to Bernadette simply to “be with her”.
In this way, Mary’s and Bernadette’s deep desire for communion is satisfied. This stage, which we call contemplative, reminds us of the alliance God has with humanity. Bernadette will articulate it in her own way “She looked at me as one person looks at another”. “Once you have seen her for the first time, you would die to see her again”. Bernadette becomes the most important person for the Lady of Massabielle.
“It is not good that the man should be alone”, the book of Genesis tells us (2,18) and it adds: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.” (Gn. 2, 24) It is shown thus that man and woman are called, in the very first instance, to a deep communion with one another, to be happy together.
Mary had to cultivate her relationship with her Son in time and space through many tribulations (just look
at the Gospel). She is doing the same when she invites Bernadette to go to the Grotto for two weeks. And this will not be without difficulty (think of the days Mary does not appear). In the same way, the deep relationship to which man and woman are called must be cultivated in time and in the reality of each day. One of the characteristics of conjugal love is that it is a special relationship, a friendship between husband and wife: friendship requires meeting, time is needed for the friends just to be together, even in times when a deep silence forms the link between them.
The evangelist Mark tells us then that Jesus “sends out his apostles to preach with power to cast out demons”. Called to communion, man quickly experiences disunity, division, separation.
Relations between man and woman, too, must go through crises and undergo purification, they must pass from pure eroticism to giving freely, from the paralysis of boredom and routine to dialogue and a deep communion. Meeting is fundamental. Life as a couple is possible without both spouses being present, but that is not enough. Just as Mary says to Bernadette: “Go and drink at the spring and bathe in it”, both spouses, too, must drink at and bathe in the spring which God has put in their hearts. Because a husband must help his wife to reach redemption just as a wife must do for her husband. They have joined their destinies in the relationship of marriage, including matters regarding eternal life.
A chaplain in the Sanctuary, who shared his pastoral experiences with me, used to tell me that he was in the habit of inviting some couples to wash their hands and faces in the spring water and, immediately afterwards, to kiss. I believe that shows clearly what we have just said: “Go and drink at the spring and bathe in it.”
Conjugal love is a task that must be undertaken every day. And it must be done by both spouses. If a couple does not see it as such, then they stay at the early passionate stage, which is not enough when problems typical of shared life arise. And the spouses must also understand that this daily task will result in making them grow day by day, becoming better persons, because therein lies the happiness
which the couple seek in choosing marriage.
Lastly, the evangelist Mark says that Christ instituted the Twelve. This is a profound aspect of the meeting of the apostles with the Master. And Mary was equally fertile, not only because the child within her was none other than the Son of God, but also because, at the foot of the cross and at Pentecost, she took on the motherhood of the disciple loved by her Son and then of the Twelve.
At Lourdes, Mary and Bernadette go from a strictly personal relationship to the joy of opening out to form the community of those who go to the chapel on pilgrimage. And the message tells us that any personal meeting should be fertile.
By its very nature, marriage supposes fertility, for the couple must always be open to welcome new lives, to make a family. Furthermore, nowadays, the couple must assume, as a priority, the responsibility of protecting that life, constantly threatened by a society which favours a culture of death.
The fertility of the couple must be evident not only in the children they accept as gifts from God, but also in their openness to the church community and to society. This openness to others is not only fertile but also, above all, a permanent source of happiness.
The laity and a missionary Church
Pilgrims to Lourdes have often confided in me. They told me: “This place is different”; “I would like to stay (on) here”; “I feel good here”; “After many years, I went back to confession”; “It is easy to pray here”.
Several years later, I heard these same comments at the shrine of Santos Lugares in Buenos Aires, which hosts some 300,000 pilgrims every year on the 11th of February. More often than not, these comments have been made to me by young university students who are living out their discipleship in a slum, in the Saint Bernadette district of Tucuman.
What do these statements have in common with those of Lourdes pilgrims, these made by people so far
away and who, for the most part, will never come to the Sanctuary of Lourdes, in France?
I believe that we can find the answer by reading of the events at the root of Lourdes. In fact, during the
apparitions, when Bernadette is at the Grotto, she is turned towards Mary, the Mother of God, who herself is in communion with her Son, Jesus, and he in communion with his Father. But let’s reverse the sequence: the Father is in communion with his Son; Jesus is in communion with Mary and she is in communion with Bernadette. So, we can safely say that, when she is at the Grotto, Bernadette is in communion with God.
We also know that Bernadette is in communion with the people who accompany her to the Grotto and in a very real way. Firstly, by service and charity: she helps her friends collect wood and she visits the sick.
Next, by her witness; Bernadette always told of the apparitions.
Then, by her daily work; in spite of the numerous difficulties which she had to endure, during the apparitions, she never missed a day of school.
And again, by her sacramentallife; Bernadette is also in communion with her community. The little Soubirous makes her first confessionand her first communion during the apparitions.
Lastly, because, as a person, she shines. Thousands of people copied the actions Bernadette did inside the Grotto; making the sign of the cross, kissing the ground, drinking at the spring, praying for sinners, remaining silent.
This position of permanent communion with God and with her brothers and sisters will always be present in Bernadette’s life, even after the apparitions. In fact, at Nevers, sister Marie-Bernarde said: “Everyday I make my pilgrimage to the Grotto.” At the same time, her service as a nurse and the long hours spent in the parlour of the Saint-Gildard convent bear witness to the gift of her life to God and to her brethren.
Leaving aside time, distance and different ways of living, the modern pilgrim to Lourdes, here in France, or a pilgrim anywhere in the world, has the same experience. In fact, what does the pilgrim first see that touches his/her heart? Without doubt, the crowd, but a crowd at prayer. You only have to stay a few minutes at the Grotto to experience this: a crowd praying and inviting others to pray. It is a crowd praying for itself, for others, for sinners. “Pray for me, a poor sinner” were Bernadette’s last words.A crowd in communion with God.
But, at the same time, this pilgrim notes that this same crowd is turned towards its brothers and sisters and is united to them by the bond of charity. In fact, you only have to walk a few yards on the sanctuary esplanade to appreciate the infinite acts of charity taking place, be it by hospitaliers, by volunteers, by Sanctuary staff, at the baths, at the confession chapel. The list would be endless. Seeing this crowd, the new pilgrim experiences, in concrete terms, a new reality, a humanity recreated by God.
We have witnessed this reality not only in Lourdes but also in several communities trying to live out this
message. Some years ago, following an invitation from Monsignor Dominique You, I had the opportunity
to get to know the “favela” (slum) of Alagados, in San Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil. There, one of the young people who worked on an adolescent pregnancy project confided to me: “For me, welcoming these adolescents is like being at the Grotto in Lourdes: in them, I see the misery of the world and, yet at the same time, the source of love in this misery. For me, these adolescents are the Grotto at Lourdes.
Likewise, a few years ago, a group of young students from the “Lourdist Family” in Tucuman decided to
spend the weekend with some young rag gatherers in the district, as a way of living out and responding directly to Mary’s invitation: “Would you do me the kindness of coming here for two weeks?” Some years later, the then bishop of the diocese told me that a priest would be going to celebrate mass there as a Christian community was being born in that place. This discovery of a new reality, the message of Lourdes, passed on by two lay persons; Mary, the Mother of the Saviour, who communicates with another lay person: Bernadette. Bernadette passes the message on, in the first instance, to lay people, most of whom are women. And so, this witness, our treasured inheritance, reaches us thanks to lay people. This surely brings to mind these magnificent words from the Second Vatican Council: “But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.” (Lumen Gentium 31).
By means of sublime catechesis, Mary will lead Bernadette towards the fulfilment of her Christian life,
towards the fulfilment of her lay vocation. In this way, a young girl who belongs to a religion of rites and
rules will come to encounter a person. Mary is just that: a lay person, but one who does not focus Bernadette’s attention on herself, since, by constantly inviting the girl to go into the Grotto, she directs her towards the spring, the source, that is to say Christ. From there, she tells her to go and “tell the priests to build a chapel.” Paul VI said: “We are all invited to plant the Church.” The message of Lourdes, eminently Christological, comes to us through lay people.
In order to explore this aspect a little further, I invite you to read together this extract from the meeting of Latin-American bishops in Aparecida (Brazil): “A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection
of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralising, that does not convert the life of the baptised world would not withstand the trials of time... We must all start again from Christ, recognising that being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Aparecida Document 12).
And we, who often practise an eminently rational faith, must understand that it is not the only way. Bernadette, a lay person at the time, before God and the world, and many lay people all over the world who live out this message, summon us, not by theological discourse, but quite simply because they attract us. “The Church grows, not by proselytising, but by “seduction”, just as Christ “attracts” all to him by the strength of Love” (Benedict XVI, homily from the inaugural mass of the 5th conference of Latin American Bishops, 13 May 2007). “The Church “attracts” when it lives in communion, for the disciples of Jesus will be recognised if they love one another as He loved us.” (Aparecida Document 159).
The Catholic Church today is experiencing a growth crisis throughout the world: it is not only in Europe
that the faithful are distancing themselves from the Church. In Latin America, too, where 43% of the world’s Catholics are to be found today, we find this problem of baptised people who do not live according to their faith and others who leave the Church to join sects or small evangelical churches.
The message of Lourdes can have its say in this sense: it’s quite simply a matter of accepting, as Bernadette did, that you must progress from the reality of a religious faith which has as its base rites and rules which you follow more or less automatically to a missionary faith which ardently seeks to get its messages across to all of humanity.
In this sense popular piety, which is evident in pilgrimages to Lourdes and in the simple, deep attitudes of believers, is a richness which the Church cannot ignore. That is why Lourdes renders a huge service to the universal Church and, especially, to the Church in Europe. It is true that most pilgrims who come are driven by an almost magical desire, in search of lost health, rather than by pure faith. In spite of everything, popular piety must not be neglected. From it pours forth a deep sense of the transcendent and an overflowing love of God, of the Virgin and of the saints. It is true that, in this popular piety, we do not find the rational Christianity with which we are familiar. But it is also true that we find in it a Christianity based ratheron elements of sensitivity and symbolism.
And yet we cannot say that this piety is not a real and valid expression of spirituality.
The poor evangelise us
I would like to begin with a story which I personally experienced. I was in a group of Christians gathered for prayer and reflection on different aspects of the message of Lourdes. Questions were asked: how can we talk of Lourdes, of the Immaculate Conception, in a society where there are Christians literally dying of hunger while others progressively increase their wealth? Can we, in a historical setting which for many is marked with hunger and poverty, say the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”? Is this situation the fruit of Divine Providence which showers all creatures with good things or is it the fruit of our foolishness? How can we make our society change and change for the good of all?
At first, most of the participants chose a position of denunciation. They denounced injustice, corruption,
blackmail, bad administration on the part of those who hold political, economic and cultural power or control of information, in every sphere of society. But then one of the participants said: “We must also condemn the corruption, injustice and blackmail coming from the Church.” To the great surprise of those present, he added: “Most of the people we are denouncing are Christians, and many of them practising.” Then he said: “I believe that, rather than putting our effort into denouncing, we Christians should be thinking of strategies to evangelise our society and to evangelise ourselves.”
For Bernadette, the apparitions were not a way out or an escape, her own personal story being marked by poverty and misery. Firstly, because Mary, God’s chosen one, was not snatched away from her people and her story, but the Gospel sees her rooted in her time and place. This is because God reveals himself to us thanks to his presence through history and his saving presence is recognised by us because we have noted that we exist in history with others. That is to say, we feel like spectators at and, at one and the same time, protagonists in the events which change personal relationships and which increase justice, love and the capacity for the world to live in peace. That is why contemplation, which is the self-fulfilling act of worshipping God, is not a flight to the heavens or an escape. It is both a vision of existing in faith and a deep, clear understanding of our existence in the world, in history.
In this sense, we can be enlightened by the words of the message of Lourdes which invite us to discover “happiness in the other world”, which can only be attained if we take the decision to “come her for two weeks.” In fact, every generation has a right to happiness, ours included. Every generation has a right to enjoy, here on earth, the kindness and happiness that Christ has proclaimed and planned for all. But it is also true that every generation has a duty to reach this happiness on the understanding that it is a gift and requires conversion to the Gospel.
“Pray for sinners”, “pray for the conversion of sinners”. These are probably the words which touched
Bernadette’s heart the most. It is an invitation to pray for oneself and for others; it is to allow, as the apostle Paul tells us, “creation to be freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God”. (Rm. 8, 21) Is it possible to respond to this invitation? Yes, it is possible. But only if you are part of history as Mary and Bernadette were, for this is nothing less than the spirit of the Gospel, that is to say, to be willing to renounce all that divides, separates and destroys the community.
Mary, a sign of the humanity created by God, can purify, as she did with Bernadette, the hatred which every person carries within them, thus giving our “search for happiness” a goal which is not just the miserable, petty quest for a bit more comfort, but the quest for the true dignity of all. This includes food, work, shelter, education, active participation in decision making, the real possibility of enjoying the rights to which we are all entitled. Can we “sing the greatness of the Lord and exult with joy”?
Yes, it is possible, but only if you are part of history as the Exodus was, that is to say a real attempt to change the world. Yes, it is possible, if the promises made to men by God are realised when we dig in the “desert of life” till we hear “the underground spring”.
“She chose me, me, because I was the poorest. If there had been someone poorer, she would have been chosen.” Bernadette’s confession as to why Mary approaches her embraces all the inhabitants of Lourdes and shows us that the Virgin has the same feelings as her Son. For Christ, the poor are favoured. They are the direct recipients of the Kingdom which he has come to establish and, besides, at the end of time, all of humanity will be judged by the poor, as according to the Gospel, salvation itself will depend on what we have done or not done for the poor: “I was hungry... I was thirsty... and I was naked...” (Mt. 25, 7)
That is why the Church must take a step forward in order to be truly the Church of the poor. It is not a question of working “for” the poor but “with” the poor as Bernadette did. Note that she chose the congregation of the Sisters of Nevers because of their association with the poor. Furthermore, it must be very clearly understood that, according to the Church’s social thinking, there exist two kinds of poverty.
On the one hand, there is the poverty of those who don’t even have the bare necessities required to meet their basic needs or to allow them a life worthy of the dignity of any human being. This is the poverty which the Church detests and which she must eliminate with all her strength. This is the injustice which hovers over the entire Latin American continent, an area inhabited by Catholics and also by people who live in conditions which are not worthy of a child of God.
There is another poverty. It is the poverty which, following evangelic guidance, is chosen as a way of life by religious men and women in the Catholic Church. It is also the choice of a good number of families who, although in a position to access the goods they desire, limit themselves to what is indispensable in order to share with those who have less what for them is too much. This is the poverty the Church praises.
The message of Lourdes shows us that, there where there was only filth and mud, God can transform into clean, clear water. There where frustration and poverty, symbolised in Bernadette, are the order of the day, even there, happiness and growth can happen, in so far as we can put ourselves into Mary’s motherly arms and, with her, follow the evangelic precept of feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison. That is to say, in so far as we set about building a civilisation of love, the only kind worthy of men and women of all times.
Father Horacio Brito Missionary of the Immaculate Conception of Lourdes,
Rector of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
Prayer to Our Lady
Virgin and Mother Mary,
You, who, moved by the spirit,
welcomed the Word of life in the depths of your humble faith,
totally surrendered to the Eternal, help us to say our “yes” in the more than ever pressing need,
to make the Good News of Jesus ring out.
You, filled with the presence of Christ, you carried the joy of John the Baptist,
making him exult in his mother’s womb.
You, trembling with joy, You sang of the marvels of the Lord.
You, who stood steadfast by the Cross with unshakable faith
and welcomed the joyful consolation of the resurrection,
you gathered the disciples to wait for the Spirit so that the evangelising Church be born.
Grant us now the new zeal of the risen to take to all the Gospel of life which triumphs over death.
Give us the saintly courage to seek out new ways to let all receive the gift of the beauty that never fades.
You, Virgin of listening and contemplation, mother of the beautiful love,
bride of an eternal marriage, intercede for the Church, whose purest of icons you are,
so that it never locks itself in and never stops in its passion to establishthe Kingdom.
Star of the new evangelisation, help us to shine out by our witness of communion,
service, burning generous faith, justice and love for the poor,
so that the joy of the Gospel reaches to the ends of the earth and no corner is denied its light.
Mother of the living Gospel,
source of joy for little ones, pray for us.