Bishop Donal Murray celebrates Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

09 Feb 2009

9 February 2009

Bishop Donal Murray celebrates Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

The real lesson of Bernadette and of Lourdes is a challenge to accept that we are weak, everything in life is uncertain, our health is fragile, our wealth can evaporate, our future is unsure – Bishop Donal Murray


The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes takes place each year on 11 February.  On this day in 1858 Our Lady first appeared to the 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes.  The Blessed Virgin Mary said to Bernadette “I am the Immaculate Conception”.  In 1992 Pope John Paul II instituted the World Day of the Sick to be held annually on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The 2009 message of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for the 17th World Day of the Sick focused particularly on sick and suffering children. 

Traditionally, during the week within which the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes falls, Directors of Diocesan Pilgrimages travel to Lourdes to celebrate the World Day of the Sick and to make preparations for their pilgrimages to Lourdes for the coming year. 

Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick, delivered the following two homilies in Lourdes this week as part of the celebrations for the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and for the World Day of the Sick:

Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Foot of the Cross celebrated at the Grotto, Lourdes – 9 February 2009

Readings: Rom 8:31-39; Jn 19:25-27

Since we were here this time last year the world has changed enormously. The radio, the television, the papers are full of gloom and warnings about worse to come: jobs, pensions, houses are at risk; our standard of living is going to fall dramatically.  Every week the predictions seem to be worse than anybody had thought seven days earlier.

This comes on top of a decade in which we were surrounded on the one hand by ever rising expectations, by constant growth in our wealth and education and standing.  On the other hand we saw uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our country – corruption, greed, the neglect and abuse of children, the continued marginalisation of so many individuals and groups in spite of our rising affluence.

It is easy to feel depressed about where we are and at how we arrived here.  But maybe we are living in the kind of world which Bernadette would have understood very well.  She was not affluent or influential.  She was poor and sick and uneducated.  She had no illusions about herself and no high expectations.  The Blessed Virgin chose her, she said, because “I was the most ignorant.  If she had found anybody more ignorant than myself she would have chosen her.” (Some of Bernadette’s Sayings, Nevers 1978, p. 68)

The events of the last few months have made all of us realise that we are not as strong or as wise or as secure as we had imagined.

The real lesson of Bernadette and of Lourdes is a challenge to accept that we are weak, everything in life is uncertain, our health is fragile, our wealth can evaporate, our future is unsure. Nothing can guarantee that things will work out as we hope.  Nothing can guarantee that we will not suffer, perhaps in ways that we had never imagined.

What really matters is what we make of our suffering, what it will mean in the story of our lives.  One of the sisters in the convent in Nevers asked Bernadette to offer her a New Year wish.  Bernadette replied: “I wish you pure love, and pure suffering.”  The sister was shocked and disturbed, but Bernadette stood by her words.  Years later, the sister said: “That wish, which frightened me so much, was to remain with me all my life.  It gave me so much courage.” (Some of Bernadette’s Sayings, p. 93)

The Blessed Virgin, who appeared to Bernadette here in this grotto knew well the connection between pure love and pure suffering.  She stood under the Cross of her Son while He endured the most cruel form of execution. But the meaning of that awful suffering was pure love.  As He set out to go to His death, He said “that the world may know that I love the Father, Arise, let us go hence” (Jn 14:31).

In the Gospel we have just heard, we see that His thoughts at that awful moment focused not on His suffering but on concern for His mother and His beloved disciple.  His message was not one of revenge or resentment but of love.  That love with which He gave his life was the love that is to be the meaning of our lives: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

In the agony of Calvary we see cruelty and injustice and betrayal but most of all we see the love greater than which no one has (Jn 15:13).  We see that love changes what seemed like utter defeat and failure into the beginning of the new creation in which all that is good in our world will flourish and expand in a transformation that surpasses our imaginings.

When we feel broken and anxious and disillusioned, it can be hard to remember that joyful hope.  Our sufferings can become ‘the trials through which we triumph by the power of him who loved us’.  Bernadette never forgot that her suffering and weakness could be the path that led her to the glory that she had seen reflected in the smile of the beautiful Lady in this grotto:  “I shall see her again, in all the splendour of her glory.”(MOLONEY J., Bernadette Speaks, Dublin, 1990, p.47).

All of this is a challenge to us in a frightening world with its bleak forecasts and its many different forms of suffering.  It challenges us to look at our fears about the future, at our disappointments about our present, at our failures an regrets about the past, knowing, as Bernadette did, that ‘neither death nor life… nothing that exists, nothing still to come… can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus, our Lord’.

Mass of Saint Bernadette and for the anointing of the Sick, Lourdes – 10 February

Readings: I Cor 1:26-31; Mt 11:25-30

These days when we try to console someone who is concerned about his/her job or about the future prospects for the economy, we sometimes say, “well, you have your health and that’s the most important thing.”  And of course it is a very important and something that people who enjoy good health should thank God for.  And, of course, nobody knows better what a great blessing health is than those who experience serious illness.

And yet it strikes me that here in Lourdes those words:‘the most important thing is that you have your health’ sound a little strange.  Here we honour Bernadette, who never knew a day’s good health in her life.  She knew that there is something even more important than good health.  Shortly before she died, a sister in the convent went to see her and asked her whether she was suffering a great deal. Bernadette replied, “All this is good for heaven.”  The sister promised to pray that Bernadette would get ease and comfort in her suffering.  But Bernadette replied, “Not comfort, but strength and patience.” (Some of Bernadette’s Sayings, Nevers, p. 116).

The first reading tells us how God overturns all our assumptions and expectations.  God chose the foolish, the weak, the despised.  And that choice is made for this reason: “so that no one might boast in the presence of the Lord”.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25)). Saint Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Cor 12:10) I don’t think we have ever fully realised how radical those words are: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  To put it another way: Where can I find my strength?  Only in my weakness!

One of the great graces of Lourdes is to see that truth in the lives of so many invalids, to see the strength that people find in their weakness.  It is a great blessing for them and a great blessing for us who are healthy at the moment to be privileged to share their search for the strength that is made perfect in weakness.

Good health is very important.  It makes it possible to do all sorts of good and useful and fulfilling things.  On the other hand, it is a gift that we can sometimes take for granted, and then it can become a kind of fool’s paradise which leads us to forget how vulnerable we really are.

Illness is painful; it involves a loss of things we value: our independence, our ability to achieve many things that we would love to do or that we had hoped to do.  But illness can also bring us closer to the truth about ourselves.  Boasting about ourselves, boasting about what we have achieved or hope to achieve, boasting before the Lord, forgetting that all we have and do is God’s gift is empty self-deception.  If we want to boast, we should boast in what the Lord has promised to us and done for us.

Bernadette, like anyone who suffers, must have longed to be free of pain, longed to be able to carry out her normal tasks with the other sisters in the convent.  Towards the end, she longed to take part in the Masses and prayers of the convent. But she said, “What I wish is to be crucified with Christ, and I wish for it more than all the delights of this world.”  (MOLONEY, J., Bernadette Speaks, Dublin 1990, p. 33)

It is a hard lesson to learn that kind of strength and patience and generosity.   What makes it possible is the invitation in the Gospel – to be like little children.  God reveals His limitless strength to those who open their hearts in trust, like children trusting in loving parents.

Bernadette is a model of that kind of trust: “In your adorable Heart I place my tears; in you I confide my sighs and my anguish” (MOLONEY, p. 31).  In her pain she often remembered what Our Lady had said to her in the grotto: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”  It is only in trust that we can accept the Lord’s invitation, believing that His yoke is easy and His burden light because He is gentle, and He offers us rest.

You who are sick come to Lourdes seeking healing and rest.  We pray for you in this Mass and in the Anointing of the Sick.  Those who are healthy know how much we owe to you.  From you we learn to recognise our own weakness and the foolishness of our assumptions.  And together we are learning, with God’s help and with one another’s, the most important lesson of our lives – the lesson of trust in Jesus who became for us ‘wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’.

+Donal Murray

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer (086 817 5674)