LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Concluding Conference: April 12th, 2019)
“At that time there stood by the cross of Jesus, His Mother and His Mother’s sister Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen. When Jesus therefore had seen His Mother and the disciple standing whom He loved, He saith to His Mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that He saith to the disciple: Behold thy Mother. And from that hour the disciple took her to his own.”
This Gospel Lesson is the Lesson that is read for the Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Church traditionally dedicates today, one week before Good Friday, to the Commemoration of Our Lady’s Seven Sorrows: in particular to Mary’s Compassion on the Mount of Calvary as she stands there at the foot of the Cross, united in heart and will to the Passion of Her Son and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ is crucified: Mary’s heart is transfixed, in fulfillment of the awful prophecy given by Simeon in the Temple on the day of the Presentation: “Behold this Child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34b-35). If not for a specific miracle done at that moment by God to preserve Mary in life, this Transfixion of Our Lady would have killed her. To call Mary “Queen of Martyrs” is not just a figure of speech then: she has rightly merited the Crown of Martyrdom by her suffering in her soul with Christ at the Foot of the Cross.
In the story of the Gospels, a mysterious Jewish Holy Man Jesus of Nazareth appears in the Jewish Galilee, announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God and calling upon men to repent of their sins. He performs many signs and wonders, particularly instantaneous public healings of the sick, over a period of three-and-a -half years, and many people come to believe in Him as the long-awaited Messiah, the “Anointed One”, promised to the people of Israel by God, who would inaugurate a kingdom of justice and peace. This Jesus is fiercely rejected, however, by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem, who “frame” Him as a criminal and who enlist the Romans over them to do their dirty work for them by having Jesus crucified to death.
On the Third Day after Jesus’ death, His tomb is found empty, and His disciples, suddenly fearless for their own safety, are proclaiming Him resurrected and alive again. Soon, they are spreading out into the Roman Empire and beyond, proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as both Christ and God, announcing the coming of His Kingdom, calling upon men to repent of their sins, to believe in Jesus Christ and be baptized. They also announce God’s judgment on this world and the certainty of a second, glorious, visible coming to earth of this same Jesus. When the Christ’s return to earth happens, then the form of this world will pass away. It will be the close of the age.
At the obscure mountain town of Lourdes in the French Pyrenees, over 1800 years later, this story of the Gospels was replicated by means of that messenger who is the first and the most excellent of Jesus of Nazareth’s disciples, Mary Immaculate. There is the social context of poverty, obscurity, particularity: there is the message of solidarity and compassion especially directed towards the poor. As in the Gospels, there is the urgent, insistent call to repentance. The eighteen distinct apparitions of Mary Immaculate to Bernadette were each beautifully synchronized with the Church’s annual spiritual renewal for the celebration of the Easter mysteries, their interpretation correctly understood by referring back to the liturgical mystery of each day.
In this way, the Lourdes fountain from the great rock of the Massabielle is revealed as a sign of Christ the Rock, the water flowing from its side recalling the water and blood which flowed from Christ’s wounded side on Mount Calvary. In the Gospel text, it is St. John who bears witness to this happening: “But one of the soldiers with a spear opened His side: and immediately there came out blood and water. And he that saw it hath given testimony: and his testimony is true. And he knoweth that he saith true: that you also may believe” (John 19:34-35). John wrote this. But remember: Mary Immaculate was also standing there at the Foot of the Cross. She saw this too.
The miraculous healing of sick persons who, with faith, had recourse to this Lourdes spring water, recalls Christ’s own miraculous healings in the Gospels. But just as in the Gospels, individual facts of miraculous physical healings are meant to be signs which point to the greater (and much more difficult) healing of human souls from sin and hardness of heart by the invisible means of divine grace. The greatest healing any person can receive from Jesus Christ is the healing which comes from the waters of the baptismal font. Thus the Lourdes water ultimately is a public sign of this baptismal water.
Christ’s first preachers warned of God’s judgment on this world – the calamities of human events being foreshadowings of this judgment.
In the first preaching of the Gospel, the chief calamity was the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the Year 70 A.D., an event specifically foretold by Jesus Himself. Following the Apparitions at Lourdes, there was an apocalyptic-type event in the disastrous war with Prussia in the Year 1870 A.D., which collapsed France’s Second Empire and brought bloody insurrection in Paris in its wake. It was as a direct consequence of the lost war and the ruin of France, that the National Pilgrimages to Lourdes began in the decade of the 1870s.
“I am the Immaculate Conception”: the name by which Our Lady identified herself to the world through Bernadette. Our conference this evening falls coincidently on one of the secondary feasts of Our Lady. This is the Feast of the Interior Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, April 12th. What is meant by this feast? Here is the theological note we find in of the hand missals:
Mary was created immaculate, and therefore the grace of God streamed into her soul without check or hindrance. She began her journey along the road of perfection at a height to which other saints arrived only at the end of a long life of saintliness. An intimate union with God, a continual and joyful remembrance of His presence, a perfect agreement of will with Him was the beginning of His gifts to Mary (Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual, Baronius Press, 2012 A.D. , [for 1962 Roman Missal].
And here is the Collect Prayer for this Mass: “O God, who didst make the Blessed Virgin Mary surpass all creatures as perfect partaker and image of Christ’s interior virtues, grant, we pray, that we may so venerate Mary’s interior life as to become through her conformed to Christ and through Him perfectly united to Thee…”
It is, I think, by contemplating this interior life of Our Lady Mary Immaculate that we can perceive why God should have had Bernadette see Mary as she did: “I saw a girl in white, no taller than I am, who greeted me with a slight bow of her head...The girl was lively, very young and surrounded with light.”
Was not this the way Heaven was conveying to human eyes, to the eyes of a poor, but good and uncomplicated girl Bernadette Soubirous something of the ineffable mystery of the Immaculate Conception?
And so we come to the end of our Lenten Mission for this Year 2019. We have been preparing ourselves for Holy Week and Easter by revisiting some of the events that gave rise to the title of our parish church, “Mary Immaculate of Lourdes”. We have tried to understand Lourdes anew in its evangelical dimension, both in the call to conversion and the call to have a deeper faith in Christ. We ought to have great confidence in Mary’s prayers for us, she who has no other office than to bring our souls closer to Christ.
I leave you then with these words taken from the Sequence Prayer of the Mass of the Interior Life of Our Lady: Now [Mary] you no longer die of love; you burn with heavenly flames; you possess what you so ardently desired. / You love the more perfectly because above all Saints you are elevated to peerless glory./ Grant that the fires burning within you, without consuming you, may also be kindled in our hearts./ O Mother of the living, make your Son live in our hearts.