Archbishop’s Homily at Opening of Pilgrimage

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“Let us celebrate with joyful hearts the birth of the Virgin Mary, of whom was born the son of justice, Christ our Lord”.

        These are the words of the Official Liturgical Entrance Antiphon for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary which we celebrate today.

Today we are here with joyful hearts because we can celebrate this great Feast of Our Lady in Lourdes, at her Shrine.  We have a special motive for joy because we have the privilege to be here in Lourdes for the Jubilee called to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the appearances of Our Lady to Saint Bernadette.

I greet each and every one of you who have joined us on this 2008 Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes, the largest ever with over 3000 pilgrims.  I greet the sick.  I greet the helpers and I thank them.  This year we will honour some helpers who have been coming with this pilgrimage for 25 years.  I greet our young people.  I hope that this pilgrimage will be an experience which will touch your hearts and enrich your faith.

I greet the priests, diocesan and religious, who not only accompany the pilgrimage but who preach the message of Mary constantly in their communities and live out that message in their lives and ministry.  I ask you to pray with and for our priests.  Priestly life and ministry is not easy in our changing world.   Priests need your prayers and your affirmation.  I am so happy to have Cardinal Connell with us and that he will be celebrating our closing Mass at the Grotto and I ask you finally to pray for me in my ministry.

All of us together look back on and reflect on the message and the meaning of those events 150 years ago, when Mary appeared to Bernadette. We look back on Mary’s continued presence over that 150-year period of time and we realise more clearly that Mary is still present today among us at this Shrine with her healing strength.
The Birth of Mary is an event which belongs at the very heart of the History of Salvation.  She is the symbol of the hope and expectation of God’s faithful people and at the same time she is the beginning of a new hope, the beginning of the dawn of that newness which her Son would bring for all creation.
With Mary’s birth, sorrow and darkness begin to be dispersed.   That is the spirit in which we enter into our pilgrimage.  Each of us comes here with our hopes and aspirations, with our problems and with the concerns and anxieties which trouble our hearts.   As we begin our pilgrimage we must allow Mary to change our hearts.  We ask her to put behind us those concerns and pre-occupations which only help to close us in on ourselves. We ask Mary for the gift of that freedom which she would show in her willingness to accept the word of the Angel.

In that sense we accept the call of Jesus, her Son, knowing that through a similar response to that of Mary we can enter into that history of healing which is the history of salvation, we can dispel the darkness in our hearts and enter into the light of God’s path of which Lourdes is a symbol.

One of my favourite stories in the Gospels is the story as told in the Gospel of Saint Mark (Mark 5: 5-6) of the visit of Jesus to his own town and his own people.   Jesus visits his own home town but his townspeople do not accept him.  They felt that because they were his townspeople and kindred that they knew who he was and they had no reason to be over impressed.   We too can be deceived into thinking that the message and the identity of Jesus can be enclosed in categories of our own construction.  Faith in Jesus, recognition of who he is, requires rather that we move out, over and above the thought patterns of any time and place.  Faith is not conformism.  It is faith which challenges the many conformisms and facile answers of any time, including our times.

Mark notes that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith” and that therefore “he could work no miracle there”.  But Mark adds immediately “though he cured some sick people by laying hands on them”!  Jesus’ special care of the sick remained even when he was unable to work any other miracle.  His care for the sick is so great that even the lack of faith of his townspeople cannot hold it back.

The sick are not then simply the objects of the care of the Church.  If we are to be faithful to Jesus and to the Church that he founded then there can be no Church without the sick.  It was unimaginable in his time on earth to find Jesus on his journeys from village to village without finding him surrounded by the sick.   In the same way a Church which did not have the sick as an integral and active part of Church life should be unimaginable today or at any time in history.
Jesus was moved to compassion when he encountered the faith of the sick. The authenticity of Church life today must be judged and measured also on how the Church appears as a community in which anyone who is sick and who is troubled and anguished is welcomed with the same compassion, understanding and care.
When Jesus came to his own town, as I said earlier, his townsfolk did not believe in him.  Somehow they thought that just because they knew him and his family that had a special title to see miracles as in other places and perhaps even more spectacular ones.    But there was no way in which faith could emerge from such smugness and self sufficiency.  Jesus could work no miracles because of their lack of faith.

This Gospel story is leading us towards something deeper.  Jesus is pointing to something about what the faith of the sick is saying to us.  He is saying that to the smug, to the self sufficient, to those who feel that on their own they can the answers to the meaning of their lives.  He is saying that in the faith of the sick we find an authenticity from which we must all learn.

The only trace of true faith that Jesus encountered in his own town was that of the sick people, who in their weakness were able to recognise their need for redemption and the limitedness of what each of us can attain on our own.   There is a sense in which it is only when we become like the sick that we can enter into the kingdom. It is only when we recognise our own limitedness that we permit the saving power of Jesus to work in us and transform us.

That has been the abiding sign of the presence of Mary here in Lourdes over the past one hundred and fifty years. Mary has cured the sick; Mary has deepened the faith of the sick to enable them to understand their sickness in a new light.  Through contact with the sick, Mary has also brought thousands and thousands to a more authentic faith and an understanding of our relationship of dependence of God, a dependence on God which is paradoxically a dependence which frees, as opposed to a self-assertiveness which imprisons.

Mary has brought so many over the past 150 years to a realisation of how much God loves us and how that God can transform us if only we put aside all trace of arrogance and self sufficiency.  And she can do that for us today.

That message challenges all of us.  It challenges our society.  There are times when our self sufficient society would willingly banish the sight of suffering into hidden corners.  In Lourdes Mary has created a city where the sick and the weak are the privileged partners of our care and concern.  That is a sign from Mary also of the type of society we should be building.  Our Irish society in its days of wealth failed to leave as its inheritance a quality of health care that it should have been possible to achieve.  Today our economic situation has changed and tough corrective measures and spending cuts are needed.  The aim must not however to get back to business as before, be to restore a past model of society and economy whose weaknesses are now more clearly to be seen.  The task, even amidst the necessary cost-cutting measures, is to create the beginnings of a new model, a new vision of society, the signs of which we can experience here in Lourdes in this experience of solidarity between young and old, sick and healthy, the hopeful and the anxious.

I turn especially to our young people.  Do not let this experience of encounter here in Lourdes with the sick and the weak just be a five day affair.  Learn from what you experience.  Reflect on how that experience should affect your life; reflect on the values you should embrace; be prepared in whatever profession you take up to witness to those values and to concretise them through the fruit of your talents and formation.  Faith in Jesus Christ is not conformism.  It is a message which challenges all forms of conformism.  If you follow the path of self-affirmation alone then  you will end up like the townspeople of Jesus who thought that they knew the anagrafical details of Jesus but failed to grasp his identity.  If you however allow Jesus to touch your hearts then he will not just heal your anxieties, but he will release from within you talents you never knew you had and a new freedom.

May we experience the presence and the faith of Mary in our lives in these days.  May Mary give each of us something of her disposition to serve Jesus and may each of us experience something of the freedom which can come alone from such faith.