Given on the 1st August 2020, at the Closing Mass for the Virtual Diocesan Pilgrimage.

St Bernadette loved this place, as we all do. Years after she left Lourdes, she used to say, ‘I wish I could just fly to Lourdes in a balloon and be at the grotto!’

In many ways, our virtual pilgrimage has been just like that. With Bernadette, we’ve journeyed in our hearts back to Lourdes, imagining ourselves to be there, right back there on pilgrimage. I hope this pilgrimage will have served to deepen your affection for the place.

Now, at journey’s end, pray to Bernadette that you might return; and ask her, meanwhile, to journey every day with you. I call on Bernadette every single morning. I ask her to hold me close to Jesus; and to help me live this day for him. Over many years, I had the privilege of visiting her convent in Nevers. It’s there you can see her body; you can sit in the room where she died; she died, not in bed, but sitting in a chair by the fire. You can still see the fireplace; that room is now a chapel. It was while I lingered in these places that I felt her say to my heart, ‘Let me look after you; Let me look after you.’ So I do; I ask her to look after me every day.

Dear Bernadette, she suffered so much. You know, Our Lady told her, ‘You will suffer much in this life, but not in the next’. In Nevers, you can see the room where she received her mission. It’s a large community room. She’d completed her Novitiate; and the day had come for each of the newly professed to be told their mission. It was the Bishop who came to tell each sister which part of the world she was going to be sent to. Bernadette was the last to be addressed. Looking down on her, because she was very small, the Bishop said, ‘As for you Sr Mary Bernard’, because that was her new name, ‘As for you, Sr Mary Bernard, you are good for nothing. So, your mission will simply be to remain here to assist in the infirmary.’ It was a terrible shock to her. To be told, ‘You are good for nothing; good for nothing!’

But, with typical courage, she embraced her new calling. She gave herself as generously as she possibly could to helping the sisters who were ill. Many attested, after her death, to her generosity and tenderness. It was just another knock, really. She’d already had the trauma of people not believing she’d seen Our Lady. When she began her new life in Nevers, she experienced the hurt of sisters telling her she’d never be a real Religious.

She must have found it easy to enter Our Lady’s pain, the pain captured so vividly by the Gospel we just heard. The Gospel tells of how, when the Angel left Mary, even Joseph wouldn’t believe her. ‘I know no man,’ she assured him. ‘The Angel told me that what I have conceived within me I have conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Dear Joseph was so hurt that he was blinded by his pain; and he decided he must do the ‘honourable thing’ and divorce her. I have the utmost respect for St Joseph. But he must have left Mary feeling she was good for nothing either. That was why the angel had to intervene and tell him in a dream that what she had conceived she had indeed conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s good, when we return to the grotto, be it in our dreams or in reality, to focus our gaze on Mary. That’s why statues and images of the grotto invariably show Bernadette with her gaze set on Mary. It’s how Bernadette would have wished it. You know she hated celebrity. After the Apparitions ended, people used to try and touch her in the street. ‘They really are stupid,’ she used to say. She was a simple peasant-girl; and she could speak plainly. It was because of all the attention she was getting that she chose to leave Lourdes, so that she could focus her gaze on Mary and Jesus. And that is what she will be calling each us to do as well.

Focus your gaze on them. Ask Bernadette to help you see them. Gaze on them in your heart; see Mary’s tenderness towards the little boy Jesus; feel the love between the three of them, Mary, Jesus and Bernadette. Because all three of them are present with us when we come to the grotto; for some of us they are intensely present.

I had the privilege of being here all alone one winter’s day; all alone: can you imagine how wonderful it is to be the only person here?! Then, as I was sitting here, two people came into view: an old man being pushed in a wheelchair by his grandson. They didn’t see me. But they made their way silently to the back of the cave; and where the wall is wet, the young boy touched it with his hand, then rubbed his grandfather’s head with water from the wall. Because the old man couldn’t reach the wall, he’d obviously asked his grandson to reach it for him and allow himself to be blessed with water from Our Lady’s spring. Because they couldn’t see me, I took a surreptitious photo: it was such a beautiful scene. And when they’d gone, I texted it to my nephew; and he replied immediately: ‘Ah, Lourdes! The grotto! My favourite place in the whole world!’

Perhaps you feel the same. The grotto: your favourite place in the whole world. If it is, just close your eyes; imagine yourself back there in your dreams; and ask Bernadette to bring you back there one day, even if it’s just in her imaginary balloon.