When we come on pilgrimage we Lourdes to tend to leave the staple diet on which we feed behind us – the T.V., radio, news, endless chat shows, the people who try to determine the trends in society, and commentators who even assume that they can tell us what we need, how we must behave if we are to be happy and fulfilled.
On pilgrimage we step aside from the pace and thrust of the superficial and see things from a more distant prospective through the wide-angle lens. On pilgrimage we try to get our bearings, make sense of what is going on in our world, find meaning in this brief, tempestuous, often pain-filled time.
Your presence here and participation in our pilgrimage is an indication that the little light of hope is alive in your heart and you wish to fan it into an affirming flame. There is nothing inevitable or logical about hope. There are cultures in which it does not exist. Hope however is a signal of the divine; it speaks to us from beyond where we are. One challenge that faces each one of us today in the society in which we live – whether as baptised, as religious, priests or bishop is to become an agent of hope.
The person of hope believes we are here because God wants us to be. Having created us in love he knows our fears, he hears our cries and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. He lifts us when we fall, gives us strength when strength fails, forgives our failings; holds us in his everlasting arms, and though others may reject us he never does. Yet, sometimes we have to create hope, it is not simply there to be plucked from a tree that someone else has planted.
The 21st century has witnessed in many parts of the world a rival of religion. The reasons are complex, but at least part of the story is simple. In an age of change we seek things that do not change. In an age of confusion we thirst for certainty. The most fundamental questions of all “why I am here? And who am I?” These questions cannot be answered by politics or economics, which tell us what and how, not why or who. The search for meaning and identity always ends in religion. Religion is intended to bind people together in a network of belonging.
Pilgrimages help us to hone in on what we have in common while enabling us to focus on the future. Lourdes causes us to change gears. The rush and pressure of deadlines, the competing voices clambering for our attention, the half truths blared at us by the world of advertising and by the hysteria and frenzy of the media all recede in this place. Instead the focus is on Our Lady, on invalids and on fellow-pilgrims.
Religion is not only about believing; it is also about belonging and we discover or rather re-discover this in a very striking way at Lourdes. There is something other worldly about the atmosphere and the attitude which we find here. The culture in which we live places a premium on profit and productivity. There is a kind of ruthlessness about our society with a result that if we are not singing from that kind of hymn sheet then we are regarded as disposable. In that kind of context there is a tendency to see weakness, woundedness, incapacity of any kind as a disadvantage. We can become so conditioned by the prevailing culture that gospel values could easily be overlooked despite our best intentions.
Lourdes is always a great wake up call for all of us. Here we come face to face with human suffering but we see it in a totally different context. We see the way in which that suffering evokes support, love, care and concern from those who accompany the sick and the invalids at Lourdes. We stand in awe of the spirit in which the invalids carry their crosses. We witness the way in which others help them to shoulder these very crosses. There is so much goodness and beauty evoked. There is a very definite sense in which the sick and invalids and we all as pilgrims feel at home in this place. We feel welcomed with open arms by Our Lady, we sense that the Lord is listening attentively to the cries of our hearts and we feel that we carry in our hearts those who have asked us to bring their prayers to Our Lady and our Lord here at Lourdes.
In many ways Lourdes puts a real question mark after the culture in which we live today. The challenge for all of us would be to bring something of the value, the care and concern, and love that we witness in this place, to bring some of that back and try to implant it in little pockets of Irish society in our neighbourhood, our communities, our parishes and church areas. This is something that will be very difficult if not impossible to bring about on our own. We need the sensitivity of Mary. She will always be found at the foot of the cross – that is the lasting impression which St. John presents in his gospels of Our Lady. There is not one of us that is not familiar with the cross. Of course it will take on different forms, ageing, ill-health, broken relationships, worries about our children and the life-styles in which they become involved, addiction of various kinds and one could continue to enumerate them. Each one of us comes here with our own particular crosses. We get a clearer insight into the fact that these crosses can make or break us. With the help of Our Lady and her reassurance we discover that while we may be on the cross she is at the foot of it and in that context our crosses become bearable. It doesn’t mean that we don’t find them painful and disconcerting, but we get strength to recognise the opportunities which are presented to us through these crosses for a greater depth in our faith and a greater growth towards God.
May our pilgrimage to Lourdes enable us to recognise the particular crosses in our lives as opportunities where God can intervene and rescue us. May we, as St. John did, discover that Mary is with us through those crosses, difficulties and worries.