Mass in the presence of the relics of St Bernadette
St George's Cathedral
Given by Fr Gildas Parry O.Praem
Imagine the scene as some wept and others jeered as a 14-year-old unlettered girl crawled around in a small cave, a dingy pig shelter, eating grass and washing her face with mud. She seemed confused. “She’s mad!” one person called out, “What is she doing?” Another shouted, “Little upstart!” Some were worried, “Poor girl!” Maybe things had finally got to her – her parents drinking, their awful poverty, living in a former prison, the bullying, chronic illnesses. Had Bernadette Soubirous simply lost it? Eating grass and drinking muddy water in the town’s rubbish dump, claiming that an apparition of a beautiful lady had told her to do it for the conversion of sinners. An extraordinary scene, and, of course, one of the events of the story of Lourdes. In human terms it seemed tragic. But this spectacle was to reveal so much about the mercy and love of God. Three days later, from this tomblike hollow, a spring gushed forth offering healing and new life. New beginnings to sinners, who, like all Prodigal Sons, no longer crawled around in pigsties, but assumed the dignity of sons and daughters of God!
Centuries before this event, a man, whom we call God, was also humiliated and mocked. He was nailed to a Cross like a common criminal, in a rubbish dump outside the city. He died the agony of a slave. On that day, too, some felt sorry for this failed preacher. Others laughed and mocked. “He called himself the Son of God, why doesn’t God rescue him then?” “Who does he think he is?” “He saved others, he cannot save himself!” And his mother, Mary, stood there, united in His agony. And after offering himself to his Father for the conversion of sinners, he was laid in a tomb, like that grotto in Massabielle. Three days later the foolishness of God would triumph over human pride as the spring of the resurrection rose up from the earth to conquer death and sin.
Likewise, many think that what we’re doing tonight is foolish, venerating relics and worshipping God in the Mass. Our doctrine of transubstantiation has often been ridiculed as madness, irreverent, and irrational by others – how can we claim to be eating God, as one critic (John Tillotson) asked. For unbelievers, kneeling before what looks like a piece of bread is madness. To us, though, it is one of the greatest acts of love – the manifestation of the power and wisdom of God. No wonder, then, that the Blessed Sacrament is central to the power of Lourdes. Why else would Our Lady have asked Bernadette to build a chapel where Mass could be celebrated above the grotto? What seems foolish to many, is for those who believe, the power and wisdom of God.
Here is a great lesson from St Bernadette and Lourdes, then – NEVER JUDGE BY FALLEN HUMAN STANDARDS. Bernadette was viewed by others as a nobody, mad. But God’s eyes are turned to poor and the lowly, and away from the man of proud heart and haughty looks! God’s ways are most definitely not our ways!
Tonight’s second reading invites us to “teach each other and advise each other in all wisdom.” Christ on the Cross is the wisdom of God, teaching all ages from his wooden pulpit. Likewise, the unteachable, ridiculed Bernadette, with no high opinion of herself, was taught by the Queen of Heaven herself. The Grotto in Lourdes became a pulpit from which Mary taught Bernadette how to be a perfect disciple of Christ, and she continues to teach us how to do likewise today.
One of the first lessons Our Lady gave the eager to learn Bernadette was how to make the Sign of the Cross perfectly. The gospel this evening tells us we must love God and love our neighbour. Therefore, in addressing God, we must do so with pure love. The way we make the Sign of the Cross hints at how much we love God. As a sister in the convent, Bernadette was admired for the way she made the Sign of the Cross. It even bought others to conversion. One sister said, “The way in which she made the sign of the cross showed she was full of the spirit of faith.” So here is one way in which we can all increase our love for God, by making the simple Sign of the Cross a witness to our faith and love. Like Bernadette, we can convert sinners by doing this simple act well. After all, if we cannot make the Sign of the Cross with love, how can we hope to love the Lord in all the greater things of our faith?
From our love of God should flow an unquenchable love for neighbour, which includes a burning desire to see them reach heaven. Bernadette was well acquainted with sorrow, ill health, abuse, and pain. Even in the convent, she experienced mockery and bullying from nuns and priests. But she rejoiced to be the lowest, and offered all these trials to God with love and patience. Her greatest consolation was to offer her humiliations, illness and suffering for the conversion of sinners. Bernadette said that her vocation was to suffer. She also said, “I may not know much, but at least I know how to pray the Rosary and love the Lord with all my heart!” This she did as Mary had taught her, praying all the time for sinners, with secret tears, just like Christ. After all, Mary had said to Bernadette, “I cannot offer you happiness in this world, but the next…” She therefore decided to offer all her pains and sorrows as an act of love to God, securing her future in paradise, as well as gaining many souls for the Lord.
Towards the end of her short life, Bernadette said, “O Jesus and Mary, I want my every consolation in this world to consist in loving you and suffering for sinners. May I be crucified alive and transformed into Jesus!” Brothers and Sisters, our lives also involve suffering, for we will all know some kind of sorrow. To suffer like Bernadette ensures that our trials are not in vain, not worthless. In fact, they are infinitely valuable. Our sufferings are the price by which we help purchase souls for God. As such, to offer our sufferings with Christ on the Cross is the most wonderful act of love we can perform, both love of God and of our neighbour.
As she lay dying, Bernadette kissed a Crucifix, and prayed her last words, “My God, I love you with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me a poor sinner, a poor sinner…” At that moment, the beautiful Lady of Lourdes who is here now among us came to keep her promise to Bernadette, that happiness of the next world. No longer on her knees in a dung heap, Bernadette was taken up to the realms of Heaven, where all tears are wiped away and joy fulfilled. By cherishing the mysteries of our Faith, by praying for sinners, by offering our sufferings in love, by being united to the Cross, may we too rejoice in the knowledge that suffering is the price by which souls are purchased, and that we can, through suffering, save sinners… After all, all the suffering of this present life cannot compare to the glory that is to be revealed in the next.
Bernadette, Our Lady told you that you would not be guaranteed happiness in this life, but now that you know supreme happiness in the next, pray for us, pray for us poor sinners that we too may love God and neighbour in this world, and see Him forever in the next!
St Bernadette Soubirous, pray for us!
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