‘Lourdes, the joy of mission’ is the pastoral theme chosen for all pilgrimages to Lourdes this year. As we begin our annual diocesan pilgrimage I would like to share with you some thoughts on this theme.
The joy of mission is something which is alien to many people in Ireland today. For them, there is little or no joy in being a Christian and many will say that those who openly profess to being Christian, those who go to Mass every Sunday, show little of this joy themselves. They are, as Pope Francis said in his encyclical ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, like ‘someone who has just come back from a funeral.’ (E.G.10).
For many people, the image of the Church in our country, and indeed worldwide, is poor. The picture which many people have of the Church is that of a musty, outdated, patriarchal and remote institution; one where squabbles, opinions and disagreements abound and where outdated and often silly rules are imposed. The examples which they give for this are the fact that priests can’t marry, that women can’t be ordained and that the Church is no longer in touch with everyday life. The question which faces us therefore is; how can we, especially while we are here in Lourdes and afterwards when we get home, show something of the joy of mission, the joy of being a Christian today? Allow me to focus on three areas; the challenge of illness, the example of St Bernadette and the presence of almost forty young people from our dioceses.
Why am I a Christian? This is a question which many people ask themselves nowadays. Some never really find an answer but some do. And very often the answer lies in their appreciation of the example of kindness given by a father or mother or by a friend. But more often it is in the example of dignity, courage and faith shown by someone who is sick. A visit to Lourdes or Knock can often highlight for someone the importance of faith in Jesus Christ if we are to cope with life and live life in a happy, fulfilled way.
Caring for the sick is a grace which very often brings out the best in people and the experience of being with the sick for a number of days can often bring out the best in all of us and allow us to really discover something of the joy of mission, the joy of being a Christian. I say to the sick, therefore, your illness, your need of care is a grace which you give to us who are on our feet. You bring out the best in us and you do so especially here in Lourdes. These days in Lourdes can have a profound effect on all of us and they can make us truly aware of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. These days in Lourdes can also teach us the joy of being Christian in today’s world, despite all the negativity we meet, especially at home.
When Bernadette wrestled with the question of ‘why me. Why was I chosen by Our Lady’ she said; “ She chose me, me, because I was the poorest. If there had been someone poorer, she would have been chosen.” And it was her awareness of the importance of poverty which influenced her choice of the convent she eventually entered; the Sisters of Nevers, whose lives were totally dedicated to caring for the poor. Bernadette accepted her situation in life. She accepted the poverty and the unpredictability of her home situation and out of that acceptance she experienced the joy of mission, the joy of being a Christian. Her example is a reminder to all of us of the importance of acceptance; that we should accept what we cannot change and then go beyond this and find joy in it. St Bernadette is the great example of one who lived the Serenity Prayer, which of course she never read; ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.’ For many people nowadays, especially those in AA, the Serenity Prayers gives them joy in their mission in life but it need not be confined to them. It is important for all of us.
No more than the image of the Church today in Ireland, young people also get a bad press at times. Very often we are told of their selfishness and images of their anti-social activities are often highlighted to distort the real picture we should have of them. Lourdes, in my experience, changes all of this. My young friends, your care for the sick in the hospital is always exemplary. Your willingness to push wheel chairs, attend to the needs of your patients and do everything with a willing heart and a joyful face is something which everyone sees and respects. Truly, in you, our young friends, the theme of this year’s pilgrimage, ‘Lourdes, the joy of mission’ is very apparent.
My prayer for all of us on this pilgrimage, the healthy and the sick, the young and the old, priests and people is that each of us will in some way discover here in Lourdes, the joy of being a Christian and return from our pilgrimage refreshed and ready to spread some of that joy in the often grim circumstances in which we live at home.