BISHOP LEO O'REILLY'S HOMILY
AT THE GROTTO, LOURDES
This Year the theme of the Lourdes pilgrimage is "the Path of Bernadette". We celebrate this Mass on the spot where our Lady appeared to Bernadette 18 times between the 11th of February and 16th July 1858. During the pilgrimage we are invited to reflect on four aspects of Bernadette’s spiritual journey: her vocation, her life in the Church, the Eucharist and her service to the sick and the poor.
The vocation of Bernadette was not very obvious at first. She grew up in poverty and ill health. She was uneducated. She was unimportant, insignificant, hardly even noticed even in her own world. But she was important in God’s eyes. She wasn’t learned or clever, but she had a role in God’s plan that no one else could play. All she would need would be the humility and simplicity to accept it and the courage to obey despite any obstacles were placed in her path. She was one of the "mere children" that Jesus spoke about in the gospel. "I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children."
Part of Bernadette’s vocation was to receive the revelations of Our Lady at the Grotto and to report and witness to them. That was a wonderful privilege. But like most privileges in God’s service, it brought not comfort and applause, but suffering. We can only imagine the courage it took for such a poor, illiterate girl to present herself to the Dean of Lourdes, Abbé Peyramale, with an order to build a church and to start having processions to this place – which was then a kind of dump. And she had to go, not once, but several times. We can only imagine the torture she suffered being questioned over and over again by church and state officials about the truth of what she was saying. But Bernadette followed her path faithfully, and it was in the midst of all this turmoil that she discerned a new side to her vocation, which was to enter the convent of the Sisters of Nevers.
She followed that path faithfully too and lived in obscurity for 13 years in the convent in Nevers. In the meantime a lot of exciting things were happening in Lourdes. The first church was built near the Grotto – what is now the crypt of the Rosary Basilica, a statue of Our Lady was placed in the Grotto, and the processions began to take place. Bernadette was completely cut off from the development of Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage and was not present at its culmination, the consecration of the basilica in 1876. She died at the age of thirty-five after a lot of illness which she bore with great patience and courage. She was canonised in 1933.
Bernadette was recognised as a saint not because she saw the Blessed Virgin at the Grotto but because she showed heroic holiness during the thirteen years she spent in the convent in Nevers. The only extraordinary months in her life were those of the apparitions; before and after, her life was obscure, ordinary, even humdrum. That was the spiritual path she followed in living out her vocation and that’s how she became a saint.
As it happens we have just finished celebrating a year of vocation in the Church in Ireland. The growing shortage of priests and religious was a very good reason for reflecting on those vocations and praying that those who experienced a call to priesthood or religious life would respond with courage and generosity. But the year of vocation was wider than that. It was about the vocation of every baptised person as a follower of Christ.
This is the theme of our first reading from the letter to the Ephesians. St. Paul offers a hymn of praise and thanks to God for all the blessings we have received through our Baptism. In that short reading he says no less than four times that God chose us. He chose us to be his adopted children, to be brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. He chose us to be holy, to live through love in his presence. He chose us from eternity for this wonderful destiny – to be children of God, to share God’s life even now in this world, and to enjoy its fullness in the next.
God has chosen each one of us. God has called each one of us. Each one of us has a unique vocation in life. Each one of us has a spiritual path to follow. God has given each one of us a special task that no one else can do. Whether we are healthy or sick, well off or poor, educated or uneducated, each one of us has a place in God’s plan.
As we spend these days in Lourdes we pray for many things. We pray for healing for ourselves or others who are sick. We remember those at home who asked us to pray for them here. We remember with great sadness this year especially those who were abused in Church institutions and who so badly need healing and peace. And we pray for children who are suffering and being abused today. We pray finally, that each one of us will discover the spiritual path God wants us to follow in this life and that we will have the grace and the courage to follow that path faithfully and courageously as Bernadette did.
St Bernadette: pray for us. Amen.