Lourdes and its message of hope

By  Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, Catholic Register Special
  • January 3, 2008

{mosimage}Editor’s note: To mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to St. Bernadette Soubirous near Lourdes, France, Pope Benedict XVI has authorized a special indulgence to encourage renewed holiness. Pilgrims visiting the Massabielle grotto, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, can receive the indulgence during the Lourdes jubilee year, which runs from Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, until Dec. 8, 2008. Pilgrims who visit any public sanctuary, shrine or other worthy place dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes may receive the indulgence Feb. 2-11. Feb. 11 is the day the first of 18 apparitions occurred and is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Feb. 2 is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The following is a reflection on the deeper meaning of the great shrine at Lourdes.

There are few pilgrimage places on Earth where one can experience the mystery of the cross and the meaning of redemptive suffering at the heart of the Christian life. Lourdes is one of those places.

When I first visited Lourdes in 1978 as a university student at the end of a summer study program in Brittany, I volunteered my time as a brancardier, transporting sick people from the accueils to the grotto and baths. I discovered then an extraordinary story that still remains hidden from many in the world today, especially in North America.

The Grotto of the Apparitions where Bernadette encountered the mother of the Lord is truly holy ground. Each time I have returned to Lourdes over the past 29 years, I appreciated more and more that holy ground. This little town tucked into the French Pyrenees is one of the best known pilgrimage sites in the Catholic world. Though hidden in a corner of France, Lourdes has a universal vocation to all  humanity. It has lived this vocation since 1858 when Mary of Nazareth, herself a model of discretion and humility, sought out another of her humble sisters in faith, Bernadette Soubirous.

Both Mary and Bernadette were sent by God, each in her own time and place, to bear a message of hope. Even the initial skepticism of the local church authorities served as a time of purification of the great message of Lourdes, which continues to resound throughout the world. Lourdes is a constant invitation to humanity. It reminds us we are pilgrims on a journey of faith.

Pilgrim spirituality teaches that the meaning of life is not found at the end of the journey, but in the very journey itself. Rugged individualism, which leads only to loneliness and despair, decreases along the pilgrim’s journey. A new, common spirit begins to grow among pilgrims.

“It’s not only walking with the feet, but walking with the heart; it is not an exterior but an interior journey. In the midst of the efforts and exhaustion of this journey, at the end one really has the great joy of reaching the Mother of Graces, of meeting with her in the silence of the shrine, of meeting with the Mother of the Lord and, therefore, of renewal of our lives,” Pope Benedict XVI told a group of Germans from Altötting two years ago.

Those words also apply to Lourdes. While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. It refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favour, was without sin from the moment she was conceived.

The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. Without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, we learn God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than  sin.  It  overpowers sin and death. When we honour the Mother of God under the title Immaculate Conception, we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, child-like curiosity, reverence and respect living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion combined without conflict inside the same person. That is what we find in Mary.

Something inside us yearns always for innocence, purity, freshness and trust. If we lose these we find ourselves cynical and disillusioned with an unhappiness that comes precisely from having been around, from having had our eyes opened, from having knowledge without innocence. We need to hold that innocence and experience in a proper tension.

Mary, Mother of the Lord, teaches us how to do just that. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s.

The mystery of Lourdes took on an even deeper meaning for me on Aug. 14-15, 2004. At Salt and Light, we had just moved into our new television broadcast centre in Toronto - itself a small miracle that a Catholic television network would come to life in one of the most secular cultures on Earth. I entered the master control room to observe two monitors depicting two contrasting human dramas that were being played out on two world stages in two very different corners of the globe. One national television network was airing scenes of the Olympic Games from Athens featuring and exalting the human body in its youthfulness, agility and beauty. Another monitor carried quite different scenes unfolding at the famous Catholic shrine tucked away in the Pyrenees in southern France. This second monitor featured not sportsmanship and physique as in Athens, but diminishment, suffering, disfigurement and pain that are so much a part of the pilgrimage centre at Lourdes. The key actor in this moment of pathos was an 84-year-old pontiff, slumped over on his kneeler as he prayed before the image of the Blessed Mother who appeared in Lourdes 150 years earlier.

Two contrasting dramas played out on the world’s television screens that August weekend. Athens and its glorious medalists come and go with the passage of time. Lourdes and its exceptional pilgrim will remain engraved on the memories and hearts of pilgrims and viewers throughout the world who, seeing those images, realized John Paul II was beginning the final dramatic act of a brilliant 26-year pontificate.

He had been an actor who knew the power of gesture and symbol. He allowed himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world. Those images broadcast throughout the world confirmed once again the magnificent, universal power of the message and mystery of Lourdes to the sick and suffering. Whenever I pray now Our Lady of Lourdes I also pray to the servant of God, John Paul II, who was one of Lourdes’ pre-eminent pilgrims, who understood so well its mystery, power and hope.

Against the backdrop of a culture of death, where life is so cheap and sanctioned euthanasia is on our doorsteps, John Paul II’s public dying gave new meaning and urgency to the Gospel of life in all of its agonizing beauty. Tourists pass quickly through places, but the places pass slowly through pilgrims leaving them forever changed. I am one of those grateful pilgrims to Lourdes whose life was changed, and continues to be changed when I visit that holy place. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparitions in Lourdes, let us give thanks to God for the graces, blessings, messages and meaning of Lourdes. They continue to work miracles throughout the world today.

(Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada.)

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