Be Merciful like the Father
The catechesis delivered by Bishop John Sherrington this year in Lourdes, on the Feast of St James, 25 July 2016.
As we come to Lourdes as pilgrims, we come to a holy and sacred shrine where we will be touched by the mercy of God and invited to share that mercy with others. From the first meeting and departures onwards, we are enfolded in God’s love as we deal with the check-in, flight and now having arrived, begin to experience that love and understand in our hearts God’s mercy.
At the heart of this experience we walk on the roads on which St Bernadette trod and follow in her footsteps as we remember how God’s mercy touched her heart and drew her into his life of love. St Bernadette who knew God’s mercy and showed that forth in her holy life devoted to God and others. Becoming a saint means that we accept God’s mercy and do our best to love others and be merciful to them. Let us reflect on God’s mercy is the life of St Bernadette.
God is Love and expresses his love as mercy when he reaches down to touch human persons in their need. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us that God has blessed us, chosen us in Christ, adopted us as his children, redeemed us and forgiven us from our sins. He then reveals the Way for us to follow Christ and promises to lead us home to himself and a blessed inheritance. He has sealed us with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1.3-14) so that we can call him ‘Abba, Father’ and reach out in love to others. In one very complex and long sentence the mystery of our life is revealed: blest, chosen, adopted, redeemed, called, sealed, verbs which draw us into relationship of love with God. This sentence needs to be lingered over in our hearts but we see its meaning in the life of St Bernadette.
When the young and frail fourteen year old, Bernadette comes to the river bank at Massabielle to collect firewood, she is keenly aware of the poverty and needs of her family. Like so many children in our world, she must help the family to survive and on a morning in February, which was probably cold and misty, she knows that firewood will help her family. Her collecting firewood in an act of mercy as she helps provide the fuel so that the family can be fed.
On that morning, God gazes upon her with eyes of mercy as he sees her need and wishes to communicate his love to her. In his plan he knows that an apparition of his Blessed Mother will help this young girl to know more deeply his mercy and discover his plan for her life. God always reaches out to us in our need in a way that we can understand his call more fully. That is why so many of us have life changing moments and calls to vocation here in Lourdes.
God’s mercy touched St Bernadette from the very beginning of her life when she was baptised. When we visit the Parish Church, we see the font where Bernadette was baptised. Baptismal fonts are so important. They remind us of when we are welcomed into the Church, washed clean of original sin, and graced into a new life as children and followers of Jesus Christ. As the prayer after baptism and anointing with Chrism says,
The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
has freed you from sin,
given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit,
and welcomed you into his holy people.
He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation.
As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King,
so may you live always as a member of his body,
sharing everlasting life.
St Bernadette knows God’s mercy when she is baptised and becomes his new creation. She is looked upon with love, freed from sin as a human being, and mercy-ed. The baptismal font is the first place where we experience the mercy of God in the sacraments and begin our new life called to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Baptism is the gateway to new and eternal life.
The images from the psalms and prophet Isaiah help us grasp the depth of God’s love for us in our need. God is likened to a mother nursing a child and expressing her deep nurturing love:
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Is 49.15)
As the child grows, so God continues to show his love in a new way:
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. (Hos 11.4)
And St Paul,
I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, (1 Cor 3.2)
The response of the one loved by God follows:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. (Psalm 131)
God touches St Bernadette with his mercy when she makes her first confession and first holy communion. It is during the year of the apparitions that she is preparing for these sacraments and so on 3 June 1858 at the age of fourteen and just over a month before the final apparition, Bernadette, who was much older than many in her class, made her First Communion with the rest of her class in the Hospital Chapel. In this nourishment of the bread of heaven, she is touched by God’s mercy as he feeds and nourishes her on the journey of life. In the same way, he feeds us as a sign of his love.
Just like St Bernadette, when we come to the chapels of confession and celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, God in his mercy touches us in a deep way to forgive our sins and heal our souls. We hear the consoling words of the priest: ‘God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and given us the sacrament of reconciliation…’ and then, ‘I absolve you from your sins…’ God’s grace is given abundantly and lavishly. Compared with God’s mercy, many of our sins are rather petty and pathetic, but we name them, we allow God to heal and free us.
Our Blessed Lady invites St Bernadette to do penance. She is asked to wash and drink of the water from the spring as a sign of her own need to receive God’s mercy and be purified of her sin and called to conversion to live the gospel more fully. This is the path of conversion that is at the heart of the message of Lourdes. True penance is to walk the path of conversion and repentance always putting others first and ahead of who we are and what we do.
Like Bernadette, many of you carry the cross of sickness and illness. Through her whole life she carried and fought sickness and illness with resilience and trust in God. She knew that God was close to her. Like Jesus, she could place her trust in the love of God because Jesus had said, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt 11.25-30)’
Bernadette’s life is marked by poverty in her family and ill-health which continued throughout her life. Her body carried in it so much pain. She also suffered at the hands of her superiors who were harsh on her with the intent of keeping her humble. But in fact, Bernadette was always very humble and receptive to God’s will for her. She lived out the spiritual work of mercy to ‘bear patiently those who do us ill’.
When we see the way in which God was merciful to Bernadette and saw her with the gaze of love, we can begin to understand how we are to be merciful like the Father.
First, Lourdes is a place where scales begin to fall from our eyes and we begin to see with the gaze of mercy. Each person is unique and loved by God. We see beyond the signs of sickness or illness, disability or look, towards the heart of the person. Pope Francis last June on the occasion of the Jubilee for the Sick and Disabled spoke about the danger of our world only having time and appreciation for the ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ person. He contrasted this with the gaze of Jesus who saw into the depths of a person and loved them. Pope Francis said, ‘Yet what an illusion it is when people today shut their eyes in the face of sickness and disability! They fail to understand the real meaning of life, which also has to do with accepting suffering and limitations. The world does not become better because only apparently “perfect” people live there – I say “perfect” rather than “false” – but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase. How true are the words of the Apostle: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27)!’ In Lourdes we learn to see more deeply through the eyes of Jesus.
Second, Lourdes gives us many opportunities to be merciful as we assist those in need and to live some of the corporal works of mercy. We all help in comforting the sick and being ready to come to their aid and go the extra mile when called. For some, there is the special call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked; being merciful when people are unable to do a task themselves. When we act in these ways we follow the command of Jesus and to follow his example, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13).
Third, we have the possibility of being merciful and living the spiritual works of mercy, especially comforting the afflicted and troubled, forgiving offenses or wrongs, counselling the doubtful and those worried about their faith and praying for the living and dead. These works affect our spirits, our minds and feelings. They are concerned with the psychological and emotional dimension of our lives. They bring hope to those who are struggling. We all need hope and encouragement in our journey of faith and as we walk the road together and step by step grow in becoming saints.
Three of the Stations of the Cross, remind me of these acts of mercy and how we are invited to imitate them:
- Jesus meets his mother Mary; how deep must have been the feelings and anguish and comfort; an example of being present to others in their need.
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; how soothing and tender; how great an example of tenderness for us.
- Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem; they are given hope; how so many families need hope today as they flee violence, conflict and face suffering and death.
St Bernadette offers us hope and not only inspires us as an example of living heroic faith in adversity but also prays and intercedes for us to her mother and our mother, Mary, the Immaculate Conception.
We pray, Hail, holy Queen….
Bishop John Sherrington
25 July 2016