Lourdes presents an extraordinary miracle. One that was experienced by a very ordinary girl in an obscure French town. In his homily today at Lourdes Grotto, Archbishop Leo Cushley describes how God reveals Himself in unexpected ways on a pilgrimage... and during our entire life.
Homily of Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews & Edinburgh, Mass at the Grotto of Lourdes, 10 July 2019
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
First of all, a renewed word of welcome to you all, including to my brother Bishop Marcus Stock and the pilgrims from Leeds and elsewhere who join the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh for our annual visit to the place where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette between 11 February and 15 July 1858.
A few months ago, I was down near the English border in our parish in Hawick, celebrating its 175th birthday, and it was a lovely, happy occasion. We were thinking back to Hawick in 1844, to the people who built a school, then a house for the priest, then a small church which is still there today. And, like England at the time, there weren’t any Catholic dioceses as yet. Instead, Scotland was still effectively run as missionary territory.
But, back in 1844, good things were beginning to happen. That same year, Bernadette Soubirous was born, a poor girl in what was then an obscure town. A year later, an Anglican clergyman was to become a Catholic, and he would on to have an enormous impact upon Britain in his day. His name was John Henry Newman. And others in those days, with generosity of spirit and tenacity and patience, were starting to rebuild the Catholic faith in our country, folk in Hawick and Leeds alike.
Good things were happening, and although they looked at the time like a few small, every day occurrences, we can now see that the Lord was already doing extraordinary things among His people, and among people with the hearts and eyes open to His gifts. The Lord was present among His people.
Pilgrimages are a bit like that too. A couple of summers ago, I took a group of over 100 young adults to Iona. We crossed over on the boat from Oban to Mull in non-stop rain and wind. We then got on buses and travelled the length of the island of Mull. A couple of hours later, at the little port just across from Iona, in sight of it, we were told that the boat would take us there, but it might not come back.
We couldn’t risk that, so we didn’t go across. Instead, in the windy sunshine in between the black clouds and wild rain, we improvised prayers on the beach looking over to the abbey, out of reach, a couple of miles away. Around our youth cross, we said the prayers we had intended to say on Iona, touched the cross in silence and left. And as soon as the last one of us touched the cross, the rain came right back on, and we dived into a tiny local hall where we said a bedraggled and improvised Mass, with everyone sitting on the floor.
None of this was what we had planned. And yet we had a wonderful, memorable pilgrimage. We had walked together and prayed together, we had had a great day out and a great adventure. And looking back, I see that maybe it was more memorable because it wasn’t quite what we had meant it to be… and I now see that it was a grace-filled moment, and the Lord’s hand was there.
Pilgrimages teach us how to find the Lord, even where we don’t expect Him. And the Lord is with us throughout our lives. Maybe we only look for him while we’re on pilgrimage, or when we’re in trouble, but through all our life, God is near us. He lets His glory be seen, if only we have the eyes to see it. This is what happens in today’s beautiful Gospel passage. Mary and her son Jesus go to a wedding. The hosts run out of wine. There’s a problem, it’s a bit embarrassing, even comical, and Jesus helps out. But St John, who records this event, lets us see how, in a simple moment of real life, God is present, if only we have the eyes to see it - even if we only notice later on and then learn to treasure it and recall it with awe.
The ancient Celtic Christians had a strong sense of God’s presence among us, and so they had a strong faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. They believed firmly in the Lord’s presence in the places around them. We demonstrate something similar by coming on pilgrimage to holy places, like this one. We come here to see with our own eyes, to reach out and touch with our own hands, real places touched by God’s presence. At one level, it is evident that this place is much like other places we know, not world famous, not frequented by millions – but nonetheless created by God, and precious to Him. But it is also a place where something extraordinary happened, and it becomes a place that teaches us that God is present in our lives, if only we have the eyes and the heart to see it a little more clearly.
God works through ordinary people and ordinary places to speak to us, to bless us and to heal us. St Bernadette was a poor girl sent here to collect firewood one unremarkable day in 1858. Through her, though, God lets us know that, our real and unremarkable lives are also a grace-filled opportunity, a pilgrimage, and that He is present to us and accompanies us throughout this wonderful adventure. He also lets us see what a gift life is to us. Bernadette’s own great heavenly patron, St Bernard of Clairvaux, once wrote, What do we have that we didn’t receive from God? So, if everything we have is from Him, if every place and person is a gift from God, our first and best response must be one of humble thanks for God’s presence, for His goodness, for His gift of life and the gift of His love which accompanies us on our way, no matter how long or short the way is, no matter how easy or difficult.
The Lord is close to us, and He speaks to us. He accomplishes extraordinary things in ordinary people and places, and among those with the hearts and eyes open to His gifts. In this very ordinary corner of the Pyrenees, blessed by the extraordinary moment when Our Lady spoke to a poor young girl, we pray for an open and simple heart like Bernadette’s. When the Lord chooses to speak to us, may we know Him and listen to Him. And may we learn to see God’s loving presence in all that happens to us, no matter what, as we go along, on our pilgrimage through life.