Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Our Lady of Lourdes - Contemplating Mary's Smile

It isn’t by chance that the Church celebrates World Day of the Sick on February 11 each year. Pope Saint John Paul II established this day of prayer and reflection in 1992 to encourage prayer for those who suffer from illness and for their caregivers. He himself had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease only a year before and it is very likely that his own experience contributed to his decision to create this day of prayer.

In his Message for this year’s World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reflected:
Wisdom of the heart means going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters. Occasionally our world forgets the special value of time spent at the bedside of the sick, since we are in such a rush; caught up as we are in the frenzy of doing, of producing, we forget to give ourselves freely, taking care of others, being responsible for others…
For this reason, I would like once again to stress “the absolute priority of ‘going forth from ourselves toward our brothers and sisters;' as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift” (Evangelii Gaudium, 179). The missionary nature of the Church is the wellspring of “an effective charity and a compassion which understands, assists, and promotes” (ibid.)
The true measure of our faith is our willingness to put it into action. Despite what some Christians profess, our individual faith can never be a private “me-and-Jesus” reality. That isn’t Christianity.

Beyond being World Day of the Sick, February 11 is also the commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title “Our Lady of Lourdes.” As we celebrate the special graces Saint Bernadette received in her 18 visions of Mary, we have an opportunity to also reflect on Mary and Bernadette as women who put their faith into action.
In Mary’s visit to her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth, we are given an example of selfless service to someone in need. This is all more powerful, when we consider that Mary herself was reeling from her own experience of being told she was to become the mother of Jesus. Rather than (justifiably!) focus her energy on the life-changing encounter she had with God, she went out serve to another in need, carrying Christ within her. In her own way, Saint Bernadette shared in this mission by courageously telling the story of her encounters with the Mother of God, despite the suffering she endured at the hands of government and Church officials, her family, and even her own doubts. 
In his apostolic visit to Lourdes in 2008, honoring the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, Pope Benedict XVI shared these words, which so beautifully sum up the meaning of the joint celebrations of World Day of the Sick and the Commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes:
To wish to contemplate [the] smile of the Virgin, does not mean letting oneself be led by an uncontrolled imagination. Scripture itself discloses it to us through the lips of Mary when she sings the Magnificat: “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit exults in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). When the Virgin Mary gives thanks to the Lord, she calls us to witness. Mary shares, as if by anticipation, with us, her future children, the joy that dwells in her heart, so that it can become ours. Every time we recite the Magnificat, we become witnesses of her smile. Here in Lourdes, in the course of the apparition of Wednesday 3 March 1858, Bernadette contemplated this smile of Mary in a most particular way. It was the first response that the Beautiful Lady gave to the young visionary who wanted to know who she was. Before introducing herself, some days later, as “the Immaculate Conception”, Mary first taught Bernadette to know her smile, this being the most appropriate point of entry into the revelation of her mystery.
In the smile of the most eminent of all creatures, looking down on us, is reflected our dignity as children of God, that dignity which never abandons the sick person. This smile, a true reflection of God’s tenderness, is the source of an invincible hope. Unfortunately we know only too well: the endurance of suffering can upset life’s most stable equilibrium; it can shake the firmest foundations of confidence, and sometimes even leads people to despair of the meaning and value of life. There are struggles that we cannot sustain alone, without the help of divine grace. When speech can no longer find the right words, the need arises for a loving presence: we seek then the closeness not only of those who share the same blood or are linked to us by friendship, but also the closeness of those who are intimately bound to us by faith. Who could be more intimate to us than Christ and his holy Mother, the Immaculate One? More than any others, they are capable of understanding us and grasping how hard we have to fight against evil and suffering. The Letter to the Hebrews says of Christ that he “is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses; for in every respect he has been tempted as we are” (cf. Hebrews 4:15). I would like to say, humbly, to those who suffer and to those who struggle and are tempted to turn their backs on life: turn towards Mary! Within the smile of the Virgin lies mysteriously hidden the strength to fight against sickness and for life. With her, equally, is found the grace to accept without fear or bitterness to leave this world at the hour chosen by God.

A prayer in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes +
Grant us, O merciful God, protection in our weakness, that we, who keep the Memorial of the Immaculate Mother of God, may with the help of her intercession, rise up from our iniquities. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

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