Reflections on Lourdes

As a priest you get used to being asked to be a chaplain to a group of pilgrims. One of the great privileges you discover on these pilgrimages, as a priest, is that you receive far more than you are ever able to give. This has been doubly true for our trip to Lourdes with HCPT (the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust) group 154.

The two key elements are the place and the people. Lourdes itself is a very special place marked by the events of the young girl Bernadette and her eighteen visions of Mary. It was via these visions that Bernadette discovered a spring and the message to call sinners to repent, wash, drink and build a church.

A church was built and over the years many penitents have come to these healing waters for themselves or for loved ones. The sign of these great acts of devotion are witnessed by the rock at the grotto being rubbed smooth by the hands of the 5 million pilgrims that visit each year.

It is true that there have been some remarkable physical healings over the years, the crutches that use to hang around the grotto are testimony to this, but that is not what the vast majority receive when they come here. Rather for most pilgrims there is a great sense of having drawn closer to God in the midst of their trials and gained a sense of peace. The Lord has touched them via the intercessions of Our Lady. Most leave knowing that Jesus is right there alongside them in their trials and will walk with them even through death. Easter is when we reaffirm our belief that Jesus triumphed over death because of the power of his divine love.

It is that divine love that provides the link between the first and second element. In this place people are made aware of the presence of holiness. They see many of the most vulnerable in society, or their helpers, making an act of faith in journeying here.

This reaching out is similar to the leper who risks much in coming to Jesus. He says to Jesus “if you are willing you can heal me.” Jesus replies, “of course I am willing.” He then reaches out and touches the leper. Here we perceive something of what is called ‘God’s preference for the poor’. It’s a preference rooted in the compassion of Jesus for the suffering.

However, those who are most vulnerable should not be viewed as powerless victims. Given the opportunity, the space, the time and a listening ear. The ‘needy’ became givers and often much more than they received in return. As was evident with other groups there, our group of young adults were unstinting in the giving of the most valuable gift of all, love. Hugs of comfort and smiles of happiness were in bountiful supply even when, through tiredness and exhaustion, us helpers had nothing else to give. Often it felt like they were being Jesus to us and reached out to us in our need – although they did not realise it.

It was a truly remarkable and humbling experience. Which throws a deeper light on Mary’s message to Bernadette for pilgrims to repent, be cleansed and build a church. For if the elements of prayer, repentance, cleansing and the sharing in acts of compassionate love are not present in the life of the Church then it will never be truly built.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
St. Bernadette, pray for us!