Grotto of Massabielle, Lourdes,
“Every year as we gather as the Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes for our opening Mass here at the Grotto we have the same sensation. It is a sensation of quietness, of silence, and of prayerfulness. After all the hectic business of getting ourselves ready for the pilgrimage and the nervousness about travel, we find ourselves suddenly in a place that is unique. We find ourselves taken away from the rush and the noise of our everyday life.
Noise is sadly part of our everyday environment. Silence is something we rarely have the occasion to encounter. Silence can be restful but it can also bring a certain unease with it. There is also a sense in which with silence we find ourselves alone with ourselves. We are afraid of silence. We cannot wait somehow to regain something of the noise of the everyday. We do not like to be on our own with ourselves.
I am always surprised when I travel on a bus or on a train and today even on a plane, that when someone comes to sit beside you instead of saying “good morning”, they rush to their bag, take out their headphones and immediately put on music or a video. Our fear of silence thus becomes a block to communication.
I remember not long ago walking along a street in Dublin and a young man was coming towards me. Just about 10 yards in front of me, he began to smile seemingly in my direction and looking, I thought, as if he recognised me. I tried rapidly to imagine where I might have met the man before, but then he simply passed me by, still smiling. He was not looking at me at all, but listening to some joke on his headphones.
Lourdes is different. Here we encounter a silence that makes us reflect. It makes us for a fleeing moment see things differently. Noise imprisons us. Silence opens us out to something different.
The silence of Lourdes is of course not a silence of emptiness. The silence of Lourdes belongs to a unique atmosphere of prayer. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon as darkness falls, you can see every day men and women who come alone here to this Grotto quietly to pray. Men and women, young and old, who normally find it hard to find time to pray, rediscover for a moment what prayer is about and how prayer is less complex than we sometimes think.
The silence of Lourdes is then not just about being on our own with ourselves. Prayer opens us beyond ourselves. It opens us to the transcendent, to something that takes us beyond our day-to-day environment. The silence of Lourdes opens us to God.
Today, there are many new forms of meditation and mindfulness, in which people seek to get away from the noise of life and find some form of reflectiveness. Prayer is more than mindfulness. Mindfulness is about ourselves. Prayer is not centred, in the first place, on attaining serenity just for ourselves. It is not introspection. Prayer is an opening to God. It is God himself who takes us towards him when in all humility we recognise God’s lordship over our lives.
Prayer however is not flight from reality. Indeed, it is the opposite. It is the way in which we begin to discover meaning amid the everyday. Prayer helps us to understand our place and responsibility within creation.
If God is Lord and Creator, then we can never exploit the good things of this earth just for our profit or our own gain or our own self-interest as if we owned it. Prayer is the key to opening what responsibility for the care of the environment is about. It is about placing ourselves radically in line with God’s plan.
In the same way when we recognise that God is Lord and Creator we begin to understand that our relationship with others can never be one of feeling superior or better than them, but that as children of the same God we have to interact with others as brothers and sisters.
Here is another fruit of the silence of Lourdes. The silence of Lourdes helps us to move beyond thinking about ourselves and begin to see others differently. Illness and physical or mental frailty are not looked on as reducing the dignity of anyone. Here in Lourdes it is the sick and the weak who have pride of place and who become central in our interaction. This is the experience of our helpers, young and old, veterans of the pilgrimage and those who are here for the first time. Prayer and silence help us to relate with others in a different way. It is that experience which brings our helpers back to Lourdes year after year.
To our sick pilgrims may I say on behalf of all here on this Diocesan Pilgrimage: you mean so much to us! We come to help, but we come also to learn from you. Know that the Lord is with you in these days in a special way and that Mary embraces you with her special protection.
Today we celebrate the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, the Birthday of Mary, Mother of God. The Gospel reading seems to speak more of the birth of Jesus than that of Mary. The reading however helps us to understand the place of Mary in salvation. Mary gives birth to Jesus recognising that the child is entirely the fruit of the intervention of God. She understands her entire life and identity then in doing the will of God and bringing others to her son.
From the first moments of the Gospel, at Cana, Mary knows how to make known to Jesus the needs others, and she knows how to make the path of Jesus known to us. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, she remained the one who always accompanied him. Today she accompanies us on our search for Jesus.
Mary is there to help us even when we do not expect it. Think of poor Bernadette, who sets out on a simple journey to find wood for her family. Mary surprises her and changes her life.
Bernadette is from a poor family, of no significance in the social life of this town. She is someone who, to use a word that is very important to Pope Francis, she lives on the periphery of society. It is to such as her that Mary comes and touches their lives.
When Pope Francis talks about the Church reaching out he speaks of reaching out to “the periphery”. What does the Pope mean by “reaching out to the periphery”? It is not just that he asks us to go out directly with concrete help to those who are poor or marginalised. That is without doubt a constant, indeed a growing and vital challenge in our economically and socially divided world today. However, Pope Francis is saying something more, something deeper and something more challenging for us to understand.
He is telling us that it is in the periphery that we encounter Jesus. We will never encounter Jesus if we live isolated in our own security and comfort. The more we reach out to the periphery, the more we will realise that Jesus is there. Jesus is there in those who suffer, in those who are ostracised, in those who fail and fall into sin, in those who seek the meaning of life. It is in the periphery that we learn the weakness and the false certainties of many of our own ideas of faith.
In all humility then we turn to Mary and ask her to bless us and to be with us in these days and to fill the silence of this place and to fill our own hearts with a sense of the protective and caring presence of Jesus in our lives.” ENDS
- 2,000 pilgrims including 200 sick people, doctors, nurses, volunteers, priests and parishioners left Dublin for Lourdes yesterday. The Pilgrimage runs until Tuesday September 12th.
- Full details here