Joy and Hope
May 8, 2010
Lourdes displays the Catholic paradox
Since my time of service in the Diocese of Orange, the Order of Malta has been after me to accompany them and the “malades” in pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. The Order of Malta is an ancient Catholic association of men and women who dedicate themselves to defending the Catholic faith and serving the infirmed.
“Malade” is the French word for someone who is sick. After arriving in Sacramento, it was not long before the Sacramento members of the Order took up the urgings of their Orange County companions to keep on pushing me.
I have always admired the members of the Order of Malta for their good work and cheerful zeal but finding time in late April and early May to take up the pilgrim’s staff did not appeal to me. After all, this was the height of the confirmation season as well as budget season, priest personnel changes, graduations around the corner, and lots of other pastoral issues that seem to thaw out in the springtime. Going to Lourdes seemed comparable to jumping off a fast moving train and then figuring a way to jump back on again.
After some gentle but firm pushing I found myself throwing together a suitcase, taking a 12-hour flight from Salt Lake City to Paris, catching a commuter plane to Pau, then a shuttle to Lourdes, arriving at the hotel in time to be told that I had 30 minutes before walking over to the Basilica of the Rosary for Mass.
There was a cascade of reflections during the holy days spent in the sacred surroundings of Lourdes, but I will speak of only one.
Lourdes displays the Catholic paradox that perplexes so many people. Much is made of the miraculous cures that draw millions of people from around the world. The fact that most of the frail, anguished, limping, weary and infirmed pilgrims come to Lourdes and then leave still frail, anguished, limping and infirmed, befuddles the more pragmatic, sensible mind. Not that the rational observer would have expected otherwise.
What baffles many about the infirmed pilgrims of Lourdes is the hope that brings them and how Lourdes does not disappoint them. The continuous convergence of those crippled by their physical ailments ignites the air with joy. This seems unexplainable, even absurd. Shouldn’t these people be disappointed? Wasn’t God letting them down again? Where are the spectacular miraculous displays?
The power of Lourdes is found in the glory of God revealed through human frailty. The credence in the Incarnation is tested in the crucible of human suffering. It is precisely in such moments that his glory is revealed.
Lourdes is considered a Marian shrine but, as all sites related to the Virgin Mary, its core is Christ. Mary helps us meditate on our share in work of her son, Jesus. At Lourdes, she brings us to contemplate the wondrous mystery of her Son’s glory reflected in our brothers and sisters who are crippled by sickness and bodily frailty. Those who are so often hidden or shuffled out of sight come into full view. Most often their predicaments are spoken of in hushed tones. In Lourdes they are announced. They become a sacramental sign of the Body of Christ. Their need for assistance and care during the pilgrim days in Lourdes make manifestly clear that which is true for all of us: We are all one body.
Often times the sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick are celebrated as “private” sacraments, away from much public display. This is due to the manner of the sacramental rituals as well as the circumstances under which the sacraments are celebrated, in a hospital or in a confessional. While much of this is true and necessary, these sacraments, as do all the sacraments, possess a public character. The sacraments, even when administered to an individual, are intended to strengthen and console the whole church.
While penance and the anointing of the sick are for the sinner and the sick, these sacraments also make the sinner and the sick occasions for God’s grace revealed to the church as well as to them. Their weakness and frailty is the opportunity for God’s hand to bring healing and mercy. This is the same testimony about which Paul speaks to us when he says: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” (II Cor. 12.9)
At Lourdes, the sick and frail openly “boast” of their weakness so that Christ may dwell in them. At Lourdes, the whole Body of Christ joins them in this paradoxical boast. In this way, the sick and frail minister to the rest of the church. They become an occasion of joy for what Christ has done and continues to do for all the members of His Mystical Body.
In creating at Lourdes a place for the sick and the crippled members of the church, the Virgin Mary continues to reveal the grace and mercy of her son, Jesus. Many may still remain puzzled by the fervor of Lourdes. I saw the joyful Magnificat of the young woman of Nazareth resonating ceaselessly in the pilgrims’ songs: “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Lk. 1.49)