Homily of Bishop Kevin at Lourdes Grotto

Some years ago, in a parish where I was working, we decided to set up a Family Mass group, to encourage the involvement of parents and children each Sunday. There was a lot of work involved. The parents and the children were very generous with their time and their talents. The first Sunday, after Mass, an elderly man came into the sacristy and said to me: “Well, I hope you are happy, now that you have ruined my Sunday Mass”. He was a regular parishioner; very actively involved in the life of the parish. His problem was not with the music, or with the way the children had done the readings. His problem was that the choir were sitting in “his usual seat”.

I imagine you are all familiar with this kind of reaction from people, when their routine is disturbed. It is not always about their seat in the Church. It could just as easily be their parking space, their mug at coffee break or their need to have things their own way. Perhaps, as I speak, you may find yourself thinking of just such a situation and some person in your daily orbit, who is always promoting himself or herself. Could I invite you to pause there for a moment!

When Jesus originally told the parable that we heard in today’s Gospel, he was speaking to the Pharisees. They were deeply religious and good-living people. Unfortunately, some of them seemed to be filled with a sense of their own self-importance. But today, the parable is not addressed to the Pharisees. Jesus, who is present among us in his Word, is speaking to us today. He is inviting me to reflect on my own attitudes. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, somehow, I am special.

It is good for us to have a sense of our own dignity, but our dignity doesn’t depend on where we park or where we sit. If you are working hard and making an important contribution to the family, or the workplace, or in the community, you may sometimes feel that you are not properly appreciated – you may be right. But sometimes we get carried away by a sense of our own self-worth. That can close our hearts to the participation of other people and the contribution that they make. They also have a place at the table.

Bernadette Soubirous was the daughter of a miller in Lourdes. Her family would have had a place in society. But they were victims of an economic crisis and lost their home. They ended up living in an old prison cell – the Cachot – that was considered to be no longer suitable even for prisoners. Bernadette was a sick child, partly due to the damp conditions in which she lived. As a result, she missed a lot of school. When we look at the apparitions of Mary, not just here in Lourdes, but also in Knock and Fatima, it is noticeable that she always seems to appear to the poor and the humble.

When Bernadette went to meet the “beautiful lady” at the grotto down by the Gave, she brought nothing with her except herself. She had no great gifts or achievements and her prospects for the future were very bleak. But “the beautiful lady smiled”. Mary smiled because she saw beneath the surface. She recognised the dignity that was inherent in Bernadette and indeed in every human being, because she was created in the image of God.

Our Gospel today speaks to us about an invitation to dinner. This is a common theme in Scripture. The invitation to the banquet symbolises the invitation into relationship with God. Today, Jesus invites us to gather at his table, without worrying about where we are going to sit, or who will be sitting beside us. We are all guests. We are her because God loves us, but nobody is here by right.

If, in your everyday life, in your business, in sport or in your family, you are always worrying about the approval of others, it may be hard to get your head around the idea that God loves you before you ever do anything to deserve it. He probably loves you more than ever when you fail. If you can get beyond the need to “influence God” or to earn his love then maybe you will arrive at a deep sense of gratitude. It think that’s what Jesus means by taking the lowest place at the table.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is the theme of our pilgrimage to Lourdes this year. To be poor in spirit is the opposite of being preoccupied with ourselves. People who are poor in spirit may have their hopes and their dreams, but what they don’t have is a sense of entitlement. In that way, they are more open to others and more open to the workings of God in their own lives.

It is interesting to read about Bernadette’s own response to the apparitions and about her life afterwards. As a child, she was accused of telling lies. She was questioned time and time again. But one of the things people began to notice was that she was always at peace. She was able to speak the truth with confidence, but without ever being aggressive in her response. I think that was because she realised that it wasn’t through her own actions that she had become the focus of attention. She wasn’t on the “back foot”. What had happened at the Grotto was something that Mary had done for her, through God’s grace, and she was able to leave it in Mary’s hands. I am reminded of the words of Mary herself, on her visitation to Elizabeth, when she said: “the almighty has done great things for me ….. he casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.”

If we think we have achieved everything by our own efforts; if we have a sense of entitlement, then there is no room for gratitude. But the life of Bernadette is full of gratitude for what she has received. Her life at the convent in Nevers was an expression of her gratitude. She didn’t want to be the focus of attention. As she said herself: “The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again”. She wanted to give the gift of herself in service to others; because she realised that this little life was a gift that she had received from God. Already, before she left Lourdes, there were documented miracles of healing, but she went away and spent most of her short life in the service of the sick in the obscurity of the convent at Nevers.

I want to share one other thought with you which, at first sight may seem to be quite different, but I think it is actually quite close to what I have been saying about Bernadette. We are living through some very challenging times in Europe at the moment. Similar challenges are being experienced elsewhere in the world. To use the words of our first reading, “the proud man’s malady” seems to have taken root. The attitude that “we are better than other people”; or “we have our own plans and we don’t need to listen to you”; or “we can do this on our own”, seems to have become very prevalent. The reality is that no family, no parish and no nation state is absolutely independent. We are all inter-dependent and this brings with it very real responsibilities.

To be “poor in Spirit” is to recognise our dependence on God and on one another. If the sharing of food is a symbol of eternal life, then our gathering around the table of the Lord here on earth has to be a way of expressing the fact that the kingdom of heaven is already here in our midst. Pope John Paul spoke about solidarity as an attitude which sees the other person “as a neighbour who is to be made a sharer on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God”. That solidarity begins here, in the simplicity of being together, praying together; listening to one another’s needs and hopes; serving one another, not for the sake of any reward but simply because this is what God wants us to do as the brothers and sisters of Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Homily of Bishop Kevin at Mass at the Grotto – Sunday 1st September 2019

Elphin Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes