Mass at the Grotto is the highlight of every pilgrimage to Lourdes. For this Grotto is the place where, first of all, St Bernadette met the Virgin Mary, on 18 occasions between 11 February and 16 July 1858. It is the place to which countless millions of people have come ever since wanting to do the same; to meet Mary, to pour out their troubles and sorrows and to express their gratitude for their joys and blessings. It is the place to which we come on pilgrimage to encounter the love, healing presence and welcome of Mary, the Mother who cares for us and of Jesus, the merciful God who loves us. It is the place where we are together, the place of encounter, a place of meeting.
The eighteen visits of Our Lady to Bernadette, the eighteen encounters Bernadette had with her, were all a preparation; a preparation for another encounter, another meeting; Bernadette’s meeting with Christ and her journey of faith which lead to the discovery of His merciful love for her. Indeed, throughout the apparitions, the Virgin always presents herself to Bernadette not as an end in herself but as the one who will assist her to gradually discover Christ.
The spring of water that Bernadette discovered here in the Grotto at the ninth apparition is the symbol of the whole message that Mary entrusted to her. This spring symbolizes Christ, the source of living water for all of us who are baptised. When the Lady told Bernadette “Go drink at the spring and wash yourself there” she gave her an invitation to go beyond her meeting with herself, Mary, and to enter into a new relationship with her Son, Jesus Christ. And she goes a step further. She says that it is not enough to discover the source of living water but we must also drink from the spring and wash in it. This means allowing ourselves to be touched by the Word of God, nourished by it and transformed by Christ’s sacramental presence, especially in the Eucharist. Nowadays, therefore, when we come to the Grotto we come to Mass. We come to meet Christ, to experience his presence and, during this Year of Mercy, to grow in our awareness of his merciful love for us.
We bring to this meeting with Christ and with Mary at the Grotto all our own troubles and worries. We bring our illnesses in the hope that this meeting, this encounter will allow God and Our Lady to bless us and ease our burdens. We bring our worries for family and friends, in the hope that the Lord will bless and protect them. We bring our thanks; for blessings received and for favours granted. This Grotto is the place, therefore, where Mary welcomes us, listens to us and leads us gently to Christ.
The Grotto is also a place of silence and prayer, something which is so necessary if we are to discover who God is, who Christ is and how we can relate to Him. The people who came to this Grotto for about the first one hundred years of its existence, came here from a background of stillness, from an age without TV, radio, and the endless sources of noise in today’s world. All of us pilgrims during the second century of the life of this Grotto come from a very different background and our need for silence, for stillness is all the greater. During our time in Lourdes it is important for all of us, therefore, to come to the Grotto and be here on our own, listening, as it were, to the sound of silence and in that silence to come closer to Christ. The challenge for us is to come here without mobile phone, without distraction, in order to listen, as Bernadette listened, to Mary as she leads us to a new awareness of the presence of Christ in our lives.
This Grotto is a school of prayer, where we can learn not only how to listen to the voice of God, but to be ourselves and to be at one with Him. One day as Bernadette was making her way through the crowds to get to the Grotto a rich lady from Paris gave her an expensive pair of rosary beads and asked Bernadette to use them during the apparition. As usual when the Lady appeared Bernadette began her rosary, but she realised that the Lady wasn’t praying with her. So she stopped and asked the Lady why. The Blessed Virgin asked Bernadette where her own rosary beads were. She told her they were in her pocket but that this lady had asked her to use her beads during the apparition. Mary told Bernadette to put them away and use your own beads. And the message that Mary had for her and for us was that when we pray we shouldn’t try to pray like others. We can only pray as ourselves. And that’s what God want. In God’s presence there is no play-acting, not trying to be someone else. Prayer is the one place we can truly be ourselves and pray as we are. At times you may feel that somehow your prayers are inadequate or lacking life, but once they are yours, they are true to you and you are doing exactly what God wants. God desires us, not to be someone else but to be truly ourselves, the person he lovingly created and redeemed. In the presence of Mary at this Grotto Bernadette learned that lesson; she learned to be true to herself. During our time here we too can learn to be ourselves, to accept ourselves, as we are and who we are, without any fear or pretence; children of God, whom he loves.
The Grotto has been a place of new beginnings, a starting point of something new for very many people. It is for this reason that the Grotto is a place of welcome, of listening, of understanding, of opening up to Christ and to others. This Grotto is, in a sense, the reflection of a new humanity, a new creation, a place where we can glimpse a new and a better world. The grace which flowed from Christ and from Mary has marked the place forever. My hope is that for all of us, and for our young people in particular, this Grotto will mark a new beginning on our journey of trying to discover faith.
In short, the Grotto is the place which welcomes our humanity just as it is, with its joys and sorrows, its wounds, its frustrations, its failures and triumphs. At the same time it is a place where we experience the love and mercy of God in the person of Mary. During our pilgrimage to the Grotto in this Year of Mercy, it is my prayer that you will find in this place a place of mercy.