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Given at Westminster Cathedral for Masses on 3rd and 4th September 2022, in the presence of the Relics of St Bernadette.

Bernadette knew what it was like to be accompanied by great crowds too. Indeed it was the crowds she was attracting to herself that made her decide she must leave Lourdes.  She had begun to be followed wherever she went. On one occasion, she heard two women walking behind her; and one say to the other, 'If only I could cut off a bit of her dress!' To which she issued a direct rebuke: 'What imbeciles you are!', she told them.

People would follow her in their thousands. If you know the streets of Lourdes, you can imagine how problematic that must have been. People were forever asking her to touch holy objects. They would drop rosaries in the hope that she would pick them up. But, stubborn to the last, she would refuse, saying, 'I’m not the one who dropped that rosary!'

People would offer money too. 'It burns me,' she said when someone tried to slip a gold coin into her hand. She was offered not only money but fame and fortune. A journalist offered to bring her to Paris and make her rich: 'Oh no, no!' she told him, 'I want to remain poor!' And she knew what it was to be really poor. The family lived in the town’s former gaol. They had almost nothing to eat: the children were so hungry that someone found her brother one day in the church eating candle-wax.

'Who can describe what is in the heavens?' asks the Psalmist. It is a perennial desire: to hear from anyone who’s had a glimpse of heaven. So it was that people never ceased asking Bernadette what this messenger from heaven looked like. Bernadette tried to describe it; but seemed to have failed when, every time she was shown a statue or a painting of what she’d described, she had to say, 'The Lady looked nothing like that!' It was a Religious priest who had the idea of showing Bernadette a book full of pictures of Our Lady from all over the world; and asked her which image came closest to what she’d seen. And she knew immediately, when she sets eyes on the icon of Our Lady of Grace.

Now, there is an interesting link between this image and our Diocese. Because the icon of Our Lady Grace is to be found not so very far from here, across the English Channel, in the Cathedral of Cambrai. And Cambrai is the Diocese which includes the town of Douai, home of the original Allen Hall, Allen Hall being our Diocesan Seminary here in London. An English College had been established in Douai when Queen Elizabeth I banished all seminaries from her land. So the generations of young priests who returned from studying there to England will all have known and prayed before this icon of Our Lady of Grace, hanging as it did in their Cathedral church. Included among those many priests will have been all the Douai Martyrs, not least St John Southworth, whose body lies in the glass casket over there in the north aisle of this Cathedral.

What strikes one about the image of Our Lady of Grace is the sweetness and tenderness in the face of Mary. Mary holds the Christ-child right against her cheek. She is clearly a very young mother; and Bernadette used to say Mary had appeared to her in her apparitions indeed as very young, almost like a child. Bernadette said Our Lady spoke with a voice which was 'sweet and delicate'. This is confirmed by a story of how Bernadette received a visit from a childhood friend in her convent. The friend asked her, 'How do you manage to spend so much time in thanksgiving after Communion?'

'I imagine Our Lady giving me the Child Jesus to hold,' replied Bernadette. 'I receive Him. … I speak to Him and He speaks to me.' So, for Bernadette, Mary was a young mother, child-like, sweet, holding her newborn baby to her cheek and offering Him for her to hold.

It was only a short while after the last of the apparitions that Bernadette found herself a nun in Nevers convent in the heart of France. She told the Sisters she had come to hide herself. The wrench of her departure from Lourdes is almost too painful to imagine. All the family cried, we are told, except for Bernadette. But she felt the pain just as acutely. 'Leaving Lourdes,' she described as 'the greatest sacrifice of my life.' 

'I was very upset at the start,” she said. 'When I got a letter from home, I would wait until I was alone to open it because I felt I couldn’t read it without crying out all my tears.'

She knew the full force of the words of Jesus we hear today, that, 'if anyone comes to me without hating father, mother, brothers, sisters, he cannot be my disciple.' She didn’t hate them, of course; no: she loved them to the very core.

But she understood what Jesus meant; that discipleship can sometimes mean being separated from your family. She captures for us the pain of that separation in a particularly moving way when writing of her mother’s death.

It is interesting to learn that, by rather extraordinary coincidence, or should I say, divine providence, her mother died on the very Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 1866. But the manner of Bernadette’s hearing about it is heart-wrenching. 'I learned about her death,' she says, 'sooner than I learned about her illness', meaning, she only discovered her mother was ill once she had died. 'I could not express to you the pain that I have suffered,' she says.

Bernadette found little consolation, I am sorry to say, in her new Religious family in Nevers. She had been warned by the Lady, 'You will not be happy in this life, though you shall be happy in the next.' The jealousy of other Sisters, which she experienced from the outset, never diminished. The Mother Superior clearly wished Bernadette to be humiliated. The day came for her group of novices to receive their mission. The Bishop came to announce the mandate each Sister was to receive: 'You, Sister, will go to Paris; you, Sister, to Mauritius', and so on. But when he came to Bernadette, he looked down at her and said, 'As for you, Sister Mary Bernard (since that was her new name), you are good for nothing; and so you will simply remain to assist in the infirmary.' 'Since she is always ill,' said the Mother Superior, 'it will be right up her street.'

Good for nothing! That clearly stung her. 'Always in the infirmary,' she wrote, towards the end of her life, 'always good for nothing.'  Yet, she gave herself with extraordinary generosity to the sick Sisters. Many attested to her kindness: 'When you’re taking care of a sick person,' she used to say, 'you must withdraw before getting any thanks … The honour of caring for them is sufficient recompense for us.' Little could she have known that, within quite a short time, she would be a patient there herself.

'Make us know the shortness of our life,' says the Psalmist. And Bernadette would indeed know shortness of life. She was just 35 when she died. By all accounts, she died a most heroic death. On her deathbed, she had allowed herself to be surrounded by holy pictures when, one day, she asked for all of them to be removed. All she wanted now was the crucifix. 'This is enough for me,' she said, pointing to the cross.

I like to think of her being sustained by those other words we hear the psalmist say today, 'In the morning, fill us with your love.' 

'In the morning, fill us with your love.' She’d already seen a glimpse of heaven from the grotto. And she used to say how much she looked forward to seeing Our Lady again, though it is important to know that what had been revealed to her was not all sweetness and light. One priest who gave testimony, after she had died, of how, when he had come unannounced to observe Bernadette in the midst of an apparition, said 'What struck me was the joy and sadness on her face …. it happened in the speed of lightening,' he said. In other words, what had been revealed to her was both beautiful and shocking. It seems that visionaries are often shown both the wonder of heaven but also given glimpses of the appalling suffering to be borne by so many.

She was asked often, towards the end, what she felt when she thought about Lourdes. Many a visitor asked if she wouldn’t like to return. 'Perhaps if I could go back there in a hot-air balloon,' she suggested, 'just to see the grotto without being seen, that would give me great joy.' I think that any of us who have been to Lourdes will understand if I say that I like, in my own prayers, to transport myself back to the grotto; and imagine Bernadette looking down on that place from heaven; joining her prayers to mine.

Might I suggest we finish by doing that right now? Close our eyes; and try to imagine ourselves being transported to the grotto. Imagine ourselves kneeling down in prayer. Hear the running water of the river, the sound of wind in the trees. And ask Bernadette to join us there. Ask her to come alongside us in our prayer; and tell Bernadette, Our Lady, and Our Blessed Lord anything we wish to tell them at this unique moment in our lives and in the life of our beloved Diocese:

What we need; what our families need; what the Church needs; what the world needs.

Let us just close our eyes; and be there.