Given at the Opening Mass for the virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes, celebrated at SPEC Retreat Centre on 26th July 2020
This year we are pilgrims to Lourdes, but from home. This unique Westminster pilgrimage comes as we begin to ease out of the pandemic which we have been living through. But the COVID19 virus rages in many countries of the world causing life-changing sickness and death and continues to touch the lives of many of our parishioners and pilgrims because of the interconnectedness of our countries. The networks of family and friendship are like the threads of a spider’s web which quiver and are touched by every person’s sickness, recovery or tragic journey to death. Many of you come on this pilgrimage with troubled hearts bearing the pain of grief, the effects of acute illness, or struggling with anxieties or trials caused by the last four months. When we look heavenwards we can be confident that the Holy Spirit hovers over our world, touching us with God’s grace and mercy.
We come with prayer and petition to the Shrine at Massabielle once again to reflect on the life of St Bernadette. Like her we are invited to allow the face of Our Blessed Lady, Mother of the Church and Our Mother, to gaze upon us as we look up into her eyes and see her face. There we see her eyes reflecting tender love and compassion, a mother whose heart bears the sufferings and pain of her children. We bring before her on this pilgrimage the faces of many who have been sick, have suffered, have died, and also bear our thanksgiving for the gift of life during the pandemic. We come to Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception.
On 11th February 1858, the young Bernadette came to the stony cave by the fast-flowing river to collect firewood. Cautiously removing her socks in order to cross the stream, she heard a noise like a gust of wind. She looked up towards the Grotto and described the event in the following words: ‘I saw a lady dressed in white, she wore a white dress, and equally white veils, a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot.’
Bernadette knows that she is in the presence of the Holy One and bows down to make the Sign of the Cross. When we make the sign of the cross, we name the mystery of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we name the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by the action of our hands. We conclude with the word ‘Amen’ in which we say ‘Yes, I believe in God, Three in One’ and hand ourselves over, placing ourselves consciously in the presence of God. It is the beginning of each and every prayer that we say. It is hopefully the last words we will hear when the priest makes the sign of the cross over us and blesses us as we prepare to die and journey into the embrace of the Father. These simple yet profound words have been the sign of the great pilgrimage of Catholics and Christians over the centuries and still they echo out. ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ During this first day of our pilgrimage I invite you to be more devout in making the sign of the cross, thinking of each of the words and placing yourself in the presence of God.
Through the gift of the Apparition, St Bernadette has discovered the ‘pearl of great price’, Jesus Christ, and gives herself to the Lady. She offers herself to God. She invests in the treasure found in the field in today’s gospel parable and goes home happy. She feels the desire to return to the cave which has become the Grotto of Our Lady, a holy and sacred place, touched by the mystery of God. She begins the days of apparitions when Our Lady will speak to her and she will discover more deeply the meaning of the mystery into which she is entering and come to know the person she has met, Our Blessed Lady, and through her Jesus Christ.
During the third Apparition, Bernadette asks the Lady her name. She replies, ‘I cannot give my name in the way that we might give a label, an official document, but I will open my heart to you, and that requires you to open yours ... Do you want to engage in this exchange?’ Bernadette is promised that she will come to know the deep meaning of her name which will be revealed later as the ‘Immaculate Conception’. She does so through her life and prayer, by opening her heart to the Lady, who is the gateway to the treasure found in her heart. I am sure the young, poorly educated, and materially poor Bernadette who suffered with much sickness, felt like the young Solomon in the first reading. He knows that he is a ‘very young man, unskilled in leadership’ who has a heavy duty to be King. The Lord promises him ‘a heart wise and shrewd as none before you has had and none will have after you.’ Bernadette will need such a heart to have the courage to speak of the Apparitions and meet much opposition as she does God’s work according to Our Lady’s plan. We too will grow through our heart-to-heart relationship and openness to the Lord and his grace.
On this first day, St Bernadette then prayed the rosary and I invite you to do the same as often as you can each day. Today, on this Sunday, we pray the Glorious Mysteries.
The fourth and fifth mysteries proclaim the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into heaven and the Crowning of Our Lady in heaven. Mary, who shared in our humanity, is the perfect disciple, who is preserved from original sin by the power of God’s grace. She shows us the way to heaven when she is assumed into heaven at the end of her life. There she is crowned in glory to intercede for us. She is called the God-bearer, the Theo-tokos, and Ark of the Covenant, Vessel of Honour. Just as the first ark carried the Tablets of Stone, the Old Law, of the First Covenant, Our Blessed Lady bears the Christ-child in her womb who gives us the new law of love. This holy vessel carries the Christ-child to birth by her action in cooperating with God.
As we begin our pilgrimage, Our Lady carries us to Jesus and will help us to discover the face of Christ in all our brothers and sisters who are sick.
Listen to the homily in full below: