Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue; Holy Man Dressed in White

Aside from reaffirming the intensity of Lourdes as a wellspring of grace amidst scenes of great suffering, today's feast is a keen reminder of two milestones from the recent and not-so-recent past.

First, this year's observance begins a year's worth of celebrations leading up to the 150th anniversary of the first apparition to St Bernadette on 11 February 1858. And, in our own time, Lourdes -- the famed venue of spiritual refuge for the sick -- was the last major visit undertaken by John Paul II in the final months of his globe-trotting, earth-moving Petrine ministry.

Speaking to his fellow infirm pilgrims at the Grotto of Massabielle on 14 August 2004, the late pontiff said that "With you I share a time of life marked by physical suffering, yet not for that reason any less fruitful in God’s wondrous plan."

"[H]ow I would like to embrace each and every one of you with affection," he added, "to tell you how close I am to you and how much I support you."

At the candlelight procession that evening, in some of the most simple yet profound language of his pontificate -- a simplicity made necessary by physical difficulty -- Wojtyla expressed a prayer that "forgiveness and brotherly love take root in human hearts.

"May every weapon be laid down, and all hatred and violence put aside.

"May everyone see in his neighbour not an enemy to be fought, but a brother to be accepted and loved, so that we may join in building a better world."

Writing on Lourdes as a "Living Witness to the Gospel of Life," a beautiful coda for today's feast comes by way of Basilian Fr Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada's Salt + Light Media and a spiritual son of the Grotto; this originally appeared in the "Living with Christ" missalettes, published by Novalis.
Next year's 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes (February 11, 2008) has great meaning for me. First, Lourdes played an important role in my own priestly vocation when I was a university student, and I owe this blessed place and its mystery much gratitude. Second, Lourdes continues to be for me and for many a powerful icon of evangelization and a living witness to the gospel of life. There are very few pilgrimage places on earth where we can experience the mystery of the Cross and the meaning of redemptive suffering that are at the heart of the Christian life. Lourdes is one of these places.

When I first visited Lourdes as a university student, I discovered then that it is truly holy ground. This little town tucked into the French Pyrenees is one of the best-known pilgrimage sites in the Catholic world. Though hidden in a corner of France, Lourdes has a universal vocation to all of humanity. It has lived this vocation since 1858 when Mary of Nazareth, herself a model of discretion and humility, sought out another of her humble sisters in faith, Bernadette Soubirous.

For me, the mystery of Lourdes took on an even deeper meaning in August 2004. We had just moved into the Salt and Light Television broadcast centre in Toronto. I entered the master control room and saw two monitors depicting two very contrasting human dramas. One network was showing the Olympic Games from Athens, featuring and exalting the human body in its youthfulness, agility and beauty.

Another monitor carried scenes of quite a different theatre—one unfolding at the shrine in Lourdes—featuring not sportsmanship and physique, but diminishment, suffering, disfigurement and pain. And the key actor in this moment of pathos was an 84-year-old Pontiff, slumped over on his kneeler as he prayed before the image of the Blessed Mother who appeared in Lourdes almost 150 years earlier.

Athens and its glorious medallists come and go with the passage of time. Lourdes and its exceptional pilgrim will remain engraved on the memories and hearts of all who, seeing those images, realized that John Paul II was beginning the final dramatic act of a brilliant 27-year pontificate. He was an actor who knew the power of gesture and symbol, and allowed himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world. Those images broadcast throughout the world confirmed once again the universal power of the message and mystery of Lourdes to the sick and suffering throughout the world.

Whenever I pray to Our Lady of Lourdes, I also pray to the Servant of God, John Paul II, who understood so well the mystery, power and hope of Lourdes. Against the backdrop of a culture of death, where life is so cheap and sanctioned euthanasia is on our doorsteps, John Paul II’s public dying and death gave new meaning and urgency to the gospel of life in all of its agonizing beauty.