This year as we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11, we also commemorate the 25th World Day of the Sick. My mind goes back to my first visit to famous shrine of Lourdes, one of the most visited and revered pilgrimage sites in the Catholic world tucked in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French-Spanish border in 1978, when as a university student at the end of a summer study program in Brittany, I volunteered my time as a “brancardier” or stretcher bearer transporting many sick people from the “Accueils” or hospices to the grotto and the baths. I discovered an extraordinary story that still remains hidden from many in the world today. There are very few pilgrimage places on earth where one can touch the mystery of the Cross and the meaning of redemptive suffering that are at the heart of the Christian life.
On February 11, 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote grotto of Massabielle on the outskirts of the town of Lourdes in the southwestern part of France. Mary revealed herself to this peasant girl, Bernadette with the words: “Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou,” spoken in the local dialect of the girl (neither French nor Spanish, but Provencal), that translates “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The lady appeared to Bernadette 18 times over the next few months.
The Immaculate Conception is a complex dogma that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favor, 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. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 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 honor the Mother of God under the title “Immaculate Conception”, we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike 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, inside the same person as 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. Through the title “Immaculate Conception,” we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s.
World Day of the Sick
Each year the Pope releases a special message for the World Day of the Sick that is celebrated fittingly on February 11, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Amazement at what God has accomplished: ‘The Almighty has done great things for me….’” (Lk 1:49). As Pope Fracnsi wrote in this year’s letter, this day was instituted by Saint John Paul II in 1992, and first celebrated at Lourdes on 11 February 1993. The day is an opportunity to reflect in particular on the needs of the sick and, more generally, of all those who suffer. It is also an occasion for those who generously assist the sick, beginning with family members, health workers and volunteers, to give thanks for their God-given vocation of accompanying our infirm brothers and sisters.”
Pope Francis continued: “Like Saint Bernadette, we stand beneath the watchful gaze of Mary. The humble maiden of Lourdes tells us that the Virgin, whom she called “the Lovely Lady”, looked at her as one person looks at another. Those simple words describe the fullness of a relationship. Bernadette, poor, illiterate and ill, felt that Mary was looking at her as a person. The Lovely Lady spoke to her with great respect and without condescension. This reminds us that every person is, and always remains, a human being, and is to be treated as such. The sick and the those who are disabled, even severely, have their own inalienable dignity and mission in life. They never become simply objects. If at times they appear merely passive, in reality that is never the case.
After her visit to the Grotto, thanks to her prayer, Bernadette turned her frailty into support for others. Thanks to her love, she was able to enrich her neighbours and, above all, to offer her life for the salvation of humanity. The fact that the Lovely Lady asked her to pray for sinners reminds us that the infirm and the suffering desire not only to be healed, but also to live a truly Christian life, even to the point of offering it as authentic missionary disciples of Christ. Mary gave Bernadette the vocation of serving the sick and called her to become a Sister of Charity, a mission that she carried out in so exemplary a way as to become a model for every healthcare worker. Let us ask Mary Immaculate for the grace always to relate to the sick as persons who certainly need assistance, at times even for the simplest of things, but who have a gift of their own to share with others.”
in Christ you welcome each of us as a son or daughter.
Sustain the trusting expectation of our hearts,
succour us in our infirmities and sufferings,
and guide us to Christ, your Son and our brother.
Help us to entrust ourselves to the Father who accomplishes great things”
Though hidden in a corner of France, Lourdes has a universal vocation to all of humanity since 1858. Over the years I have reflected often on Bernadette’s experience and her own suffering as she tried to share the story of her encounter with the “beautiful lady” with those around her. Even the initial skepticism of the local church authorities to Bernadette’s story served as a time of purification of the great message of Lourdes that continues to resound throughout the world. Bernadette’s simple faith and trust in God inspires me and many to not be afraid to share the stories of our religious experience and convictions with those around us. Do we fear indifference, hostility, being ridiculed or sidelined? I take courage in the response of young Bernadette to the chief of police of Lourdes who said that she did not convince him of the events that had taken place at a grotto near the river. Bernadette said: “The Lady did not instruct me to convince you, but to tell you.”
May we never tire in telling those around us of the great things that God has done for us and for humanity.