“His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him’” (John 9: 2-3).
On Saturday, 11 February, the Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (France). It is also the World Day of the Sick. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous between 11 February and 16 July 1858 at the grotto of Massabielle, which was a garbage heap at the time. Bernadette was unsure of who this most beautiful Lady was who was appearing to her, and she finally answered Bernadette on 25 March (the feast of the Annunciation) telling her that she was the Immaculate Conception. We know, of course, that this means that Our Lady was identifying her very person as the Immaculate Conception while appearing to the world during a time of increasing religious skepticism and rationalism based solely on the material, observed world that can be only scientifically explained.
The Blessed Mother asked for three things: prayer, penance, and processions in the context of a chapel that would be built on the very sight where she was appearing. The crowds at first thought that Bernadette was crazy or was making up the stories just to attract attention. However, once the waters started to flow precisely where Our Lady told Bernadette to dig because a spring was located underneath the dirt, people became curious. When miraculous cures began to occur once people used this flowing water, the crowds began to believe that what the fourteen-year-old had been saying all along was true.
Today, the grotto at Lourdes stands as a testimony to God’s continuing healing in our world. Thousands of crutches, canes, and wheelchairs have been left behind as a statement to the visitors of Lourdes that God is very much united to His people, especially in their suffering.
Of course, not everyone who travels to Lourdes is physically cured of their ailments. The physical cure is secondary to the spiritual connection that every person should have to the Passion of Jesus Himself in this life. The Blessed Virgin’s request always points to her Son. The chapel built in honor of her houses the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where the sick and suffering uniquely offer their distress to the God-Man who endured tremendous distress for each one of us. It pleases God that each of us honors His mother who likewise endured the Passion of her Son while standing beneath the Cross. Simeon’s prophecy thirty-three years previous from the time of the Crucifixion had come to fruition: the sword of suffering wounded Mary’s Immaculate Heart just as Jesus’ Sacred Heart was physically pierced with a lance.
The suffering that we endure—whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual—has unique meaning because of the suffering of Jesus Himself. Before the Passion of Christ, the Jews were unable to answer the question sufficiently why good people have to undergo difficulties and suffering in life, especially when compared to openly evil people who seem never to suffer misfortune or at least are touched very little by it.
Jesus is the Innocent Lamb Himself who willingly underwent all distress and suffering to show us two important aspects. First, our complete union with God is so important to Him that He was willing to come down from heaven and take upon Himself all the effects of the Fall with all its evil consequences to show us what genuine, true love is. Second, He shows us that the suffering that we individually endure in this world is not useless. There is redemptive suffering in our life. We join our difficulties in life—no matter how small or large, how short in duration or long-lasting, how private or public—to the Cross of Jesus Himself asking Him to unite us to His very Heart to shape us into the image of a suffering servant, just as He is the true Suffering Servant Himself.
Jesus has given us two primary means to help us along our pilgrim way which is often fraught with discouragement, frustration, and sometimes even anger at our situations in life dealing with suffering. First, His own mother is the sure guide who helps us along our way. St. Bernadette encountered the Lady who was always a consoling presence even though she lamented so many souls who refused to turn to her Son. Prayer, penance, and processions not only appease God, but they also remind us of what our life truly is. As we pray in the Hail, Holy Queen, we do, in fact, live in a valley of tears in this life. Our Lady, moreover, promised Bernadette that she would experience happiness not in this life, but she surely would in the next. The fact that unites all people is that we live and navigate our way in a fallen world. We all suffer in one way (or many ways) or another all throughout our life. No one is immune from suffering. Many people expend tremendous energy fighting this reality, but the fact remains that we all face the Cross.
Second, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to give spiritual strength, and sometimes even physical restoration, to our crosses in life. From the beginning of the Church’s life, she continued the mission of Jesus seen in all four Gospels where He healed the blind, lame, deaf, lepers, the possessed, and even the dead by raising them. Sickness can be an occasion to rebel against God or to doubt His mercy and presence in the midst of continued hardship. That is why the Church offers this Anointing by her priests to assure the sick or aged person that he is not alone, that God is always the Good Shepherd, and that individual suffering does not have to be endured in vain.
Indeed, St. James’ Epistle clearly states, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the priests of the Church and let them pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). The Lord came to give us healing of body and spirit. However, if the body is not healed, this does not mean that God is deaf to the prayers of the sick. As Jesus said in John’s Gospel, fidelity to God in the midst of continued suffering is a great testimony to today’s world because faith in God is stronger than this material world. Persons who remain faithful to Jesus living in the midst of their own Calvaries, as it were, due so because they are motivated by love of God who, even though they cannot see Him physically, have a profound knowledge of Him by their side nonetheless. This is the continuing miracle in today’s world multiplied in the lives of thousands of souls throughout the world—many of whom quietly endure their hardships daily. Despite many worldy people telling them otherwise, despite their bodies failing them, and despite a situation that they most likely never asked for, these faithful “soldiers” marshal on carrying their sicknesses for love of God, for their loved ones, for us, and for the world. They have heard Our Lady’s call for prayer, penance, and processions in the message at Lourdes. These many years later, the miracles obtained through Our Lady of Lourdes continue in many ways that we can actually experience and in many more ways that we cannot see in this life. Yet, God’s consolation and healing are offered to us as an invitation to “[c]ome and see” the good things that God can accomplish in anyone’s life no matter what their circumstances are (John 1: 39). May we be able to say along with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler