World Day for the Sick - Our Lady of Lourdes
Posted: Wed, 10 Feb 2021 16:25
Lourdes was a tiny little French town, nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees, close to the Spanish border. It was not a place you would go to unless you had to. However, it was in this out of the way, insignificant little town that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, chose to visit the sickly, little Bernadette Soubirous. The series of apparitions between 11 February and 16 July 1858 lifted this sleepy town to become one of the world's leading pilgrimage centres—it is sleepy and tiny no longer, boasting a major train station and an international airport.
St Bernadette was no random choice to be the messenger of this apparition. In the gospels, we see Jesus reaching out to those on the margins, so his mother reaching out to a victim of cholera and asthma is totally in accord with gospel values. Mary appeared to this child—not to the local parish priest or to the mayor. Her conversations with 'the beautiful lady' were simple and revealed the deep care of Mary for this child. On instructions from Mary, Bernadette dug into the earth of the grotto and discovered a spring of water that still flows to this day. This spring has been the focus for millions of sick pilgrims who have visited Lourdes in the years since.
Despite being considered out of her mind and viewed as an attention seeker by her parish priest, Abbe Peyramale, Bernadette continued to visit the grotto. However when she came back to her priest to report that the lady gave her name as 'the Immaculate Conception', he realised this simple, illiterate child could have no understanding of a dogma that had only been declared in 1854 by Pius IX. Mary's desires that a church be built and that people come in procession to wash in the waters have come true—a child, with little education and suffering from sickness, was the one chosen to make sure it happened. Bernadette was well aware of her position after the apparitions; she moved to Nevers and became a Sister of Charity, sadly dying at the age of only 35—the result of years of pain and suffering. She retained her humility and never lived the life of a religious 'prima donna'; as she said, "The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again".
It is this simple young woman whom the Church has chosen as the patron saint of those who are sick. It is entirely appropriate given the position of Lourdes in the Church today. I have been blessed to visit Lourdes with many sick children over the years with HCPT—the Pilgrimage Trust. I have witnessed how Lourdes revolves around the needs of the sick and disabled; in many ways, the whole ethos of town is counter-cultural to societies that would rather keep sickness and illness to one side, even secret.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the problems and difficulties of sickness front and centre. Every night we are given realistic details of those suffering and, tragically, those who have died. Our whole way of life has changed drastically as we work to stop the spread: simple events like going to the shop for a loaf of bread involves sanitising and wearing masks to ensure that we protect each other; increasingly, we need to ask ourselves every time we go out 'is this journey really necessary?'
The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on 11 February commemorates the date of the first apparition and is designated as the world day of prayer for the sick. In his recent statement to prepare for the feast, the Pope praised all those who help the sick and called on Christians to practice what they preach, including by guaranteeing equal access to health care for all people:
The current pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in our health care systems and exposed inefficiencies in the care of the sick.
Pope Francis, Message for the 29th World Day of the Sick, 12/01/2021
The Holy Father urges us to reflect on the basic human right that everyone has to proper health care—it must not depend on your status or wealth. He urges all of us to work for the common good and ensure that victims of this pandemic receive the support that they need. Interestingly, he urges us to reflect on Jesus' plea against hypocrisy (see Matt 23: 1-12): 'For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.' (Matt 23:12)
In his message for this year, there is an understanding that real faith leads to real care for all who suffer from illness, poverty or injustice. When someone suffers, especially a loved one, we need to feel empathy and compassion. This pandemic has pressed a pause button for the whole world: we have to allow ourselves to understand the pain and hurt of others. The challenge of this pandemic, indeed of any illness, is that we are called to enter the pain and make it our own. This is the when the reality of incarnation really hits: Jesus entered our world to share our joys and our pains. The passion, suffering and death of Jesus stands as an eternal example to us all: we are invited to share our vulnerability, especially with others who are suffering.
The pain of pandemic has also brought out the very best, as so many have gone above and beyond what has been asked of them to serve those who are sick. For me, the beauty of Lourdes is the support and friendship we can receive from those who society can regard as weak and, even, disposable. We are called to love our neighbour in good times and bad, not just when it is convenient for us. The shining love of Lourdes is made visible in the smiles, the fun and games that a pilgrimage brings—we enjoy a true 'holiday with Mary.' Suffering and pain allows us to enter fully into the mystery of life. Covid-19 has forced us all to realise the beauty of life, the beauty of every individual and precious life.
The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes 2021 needs to be celebrated with special solemnity this year, as we remember those we have lost, looking forward to mass vaccinations and an experience of real hope. We do not stand on the sidelines, we make the choice, like the Good Samaritan, to be involved and to just care. The Pope reminds us in his message for the World Day of the Sick:
A society is all the more human to the degree that it cares effectively for its most frail and suffering members, in a spirit of fraternal love.
Pope Francis, ibid
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB