Following St. Bernadette to Eternal Happiness, September 16, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Novitiate Chapel of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers
Nevers, France
Votive Mass of St. Bernadette
Pilgrimage to the Saints and Shrines of France
September 16, 2013
1 Cor 26-31, Ps 15, Lk 1:26-38

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here: 


One handmaid summoning another to a fiat

Today the word of God brings us right to the heart of the question of vocation. In the Gospel, the Archangel Gabriel goes to a very specific town from where the apostle Barnabas doubted any good could come, to a specific teenage girl named Mary betrothed to a particular man called Joseph. It was not random in the least. This young girl was to receive the greatest vocation any human being ever has, to become the mother not only of the long-awaited Messiah but of God. Understandably, even though she had found favor with God, even though she had been filled with God and full of God since her conception, she was still afraid not only by the messenger but also the mission. That anxiety came out in her question, “How can this be since I have no relations with a man?” Such a question would have made no sense at all if she was betrothed to Joseph in the ordinary way, because then everyone would have known how she would conceive a child. Her question is intelligible only if, as the Church teaches, she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity to God and was wondering how, against the laws of biology, she would be able to conceive while maintaining that vow. After God’s messenger explained to her, mysteriously, how it would come about by the power of the Holy Spirit, she responded with prompt faith and dedication to God’s plan, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word!”

Some 1875 years later, that handmaid of the Lord, that woman full of grace, was still at the Lord’s service. This time it was she, rather than the Archangel Gabriel, who was sent by God to a town called Lourdes, to a virgin of the house of François and Louise Soubirous, and the virgin’s name was Marie Bernard, nicknamed Bernadette. Bernadette had received no education, couldn’t read or write and for that reason had not yet made her first Communion because she couldn’t read or study the Catechism. The Soubirous family was so poor that in order to avoid homelessness they were living in an old damp dungeon that we will see later on our pilgrimage. On the day Mary first appeared to her, she had gone to a cave that served basically as the city dump in order to try to find some twigs and branches that might serve as firewood to keep them warm on a cold, wintry day at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Over the course of 18 visits, the handmaid of the Lord would reveal to this humble handmaid devoted to her what mission God was entrusting to her.

God chooses and exalts the lowly 

This teenage girl was an unlikely candidate for a mission to go to the pastor Father Peyramale, to the Bishop, to the civil authorities and essentially to the world and ask for a Church to be built where the city dump was. But as St. Paul reminds us in today’s first reading, that’s the way God often works. “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”

This is what happened with St. Juan Diego, a 57 year old man who used to shuffle 15 miles to daily Mass with his head down to whom Mary appeared in Guadalupe asking for a chapel to be built. This is what happened with the three young shepherd children in Fatima, where the Blessed Virgin asked them to pray for the conversion of sinners. This is what happened with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, whom we will visit later on today, who after the death of her father was terribly mistreated by family members and was not considered anything special in her monastery. This is what happened with St. John Vianney, whom we will also visit today, who because he never received a formal education because of the French Revolution, was kicked out of the seminary three times because he couldn’t retain anything in his “mauvaise tête” (bad head).

This is what happened with the apostles, who were not the rabbis of the day but simple tradesmen and unlikely tradesmen at that: Peter, whose first words to the Lord were “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” or Matthew, a detested tax collector. That’s what happened with the prophet Isaiah, who used foul language; with Jeremiah, who considered himself too young; with Gideon, who was the least of his family, and his family the least of his tribe, and his tribe the least of the tribes of Judah. God chooses the weak, as we used to pray in the Preface for Martyrs, and makes them strong in bearing witness to him. God chose St. Bernadette and strengthened her to fulfill the mission being given to her.

Bernadette teaches us much

There’s a lot we could ponder about St. Bernadette that can help us, in turn, fulfill the mission God has given us to become holy disciples and ardent apostles, to go to him and be instruments to bring him to others. We could focus on her humility that never let the Marian apparitions go to her head or think herself someone more special or more loved than others. We could concentrate on her patience as she would be asked the same questions thousands of times, often not by people seeking to grow in faith, but to say they met the seer. We could ponder her capacity to suffer with faith, as she did for most of her life, but especially her last years here in the Convent when she was in the Infirmary. We could certainly pay attention to her charity, shown in her care for so many other sick sisters in the infirmary. But I would like to ponder three staples of our Christian life that she lived to a beautiful and heroic degree.

The importance of little things

The first thing is the importance of really praying the little things of our faith, something she learned from Our Lady, lived, and tried to pass on to others. She recounted that when she first met our Lady, February 11, 1858, “I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but I couldn’t. My hand fell. Then I became afraid because I couldn’t do it. The Vision made the sign of the Cross and I tried again to make it myself and then I could. And as soon as I had made it, I became calm.” Bernadette had been prevented from making the sign of the Cross until she had seen the Blessed Mother make it. On subsequent appearances, Bernadette would make the sign of the Cross together with Mary and tried to imitate precisely how Mary made it with profound reverence and recollection. After the apparitions, when Bernadette was subjected to the endless line of interviews from people seeking to get her to divulge all that Mary had revealed to her, she would often be reticent about many of the details. She would readily respond, however, when her interrogators asked her to show them how Our Lady demonstrated to make the sign of the cross.

When she became a Sister of Charity of Nevers, Bernadette continued to make the Sign of the Cross as Mary had taught her. It often brought other sisters, accustomed to making the sign of the Cross routinely and without much thought, to conversion. “The way in which she made the sign of the cross indicated that she was full of the spirit of faith,” Sr. Vincent Garros said after Bernadette’s death. “She couldn’t stand to see others make it poorly. One day, when I had made it very negligently, she asked me if I had hurt my arm or was in a hurry.”

A young novice, Sr. Emilienne Dobuoué, said recalled that Bernadette once politely indicated to her that she made the sign of the cross poorly. “You should pay attention to it,” Bernadette encouraged her, “for making the Cross well is important.” To another sister who asked what she needed to do to go to heaven, Bernadette without hesitation said, “Make the sign of the Cross well. That in itself is already a great deal.”

Bernadette sought to make the sign of the Cross as she had witnessed the Blessed Mother make it: slowly, in a sweeping gesture, raising her right hand so that her fingers touched to the very top of her forehead, then lowering her hands to touch her waist, and then slowly touching the extreme of her left shoulder followed by her right. She did so entrusting herself to the three persons of the Trinity whose name she would invoke, while opening herself up to the infinite graces Christ gained for us on the Cross and at the same time committing herself to embrace her daily Cross and follow Christ as a new Simon of Cyrene.

Pope Benedict spoke about St. Bernadette’s praying the sign of the Cross, in 1858 during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. “At Lourdes, in the school of Mary,” Pope Benedict said, “pilgrims learn to consider the Cross in their own lives in the light of the glorious cross of Christ. In appearing to Bernadette, … the first gesture of Mary was precisely the Sign of the Cross, in silence and without words. And Bernadette imitated her in making also the Sign of the Cross with a trembling hand. Thus, the Virgin gave a first initiation into the essence of Christianity: the Sign of the Cross is the summit of our faith, and in making it with an attentive heart, we enter into the fullness of the mystery of our salvation.” St. Bernadette was a fully initiated Christian who grasped this summit of our faith.

The sublime reality of Holy Communion

Second, St. Bernadette teaches us something really important about the Holy Eucharist. Because she was illiterate and couldn’t read her catechism, she still hadn’t made her first Holy Communion by the time the Blessed Virgin started appearing to her when Bernadette was 14. Once it became clear to her pastor, however, that Mary was favoring her in this way, he was somewhat ashamed that he hadn’t done his duty in preparing her for Holy Communion, so he asked the parochial vicar to get her ready to receive Jesus. After she had made her first Holy Communion, a woman named Mademoiselle Estrade asked her, “What made you happier, Bernadette, first Holy Communion or the Apparitions?” Bernadette replied, “The two go together. They cannot be compared. I only know that I was very happy on both occasions.” With her simple wisdom, Bernadette points all of us to something really important. St. Bernadette is famous today because God chose her to be the recipient of Mary’s apparitions, but she was clearly indicating that the gift each of us receives in Holy Communion is just as important. (I actually think it’s even more important to receive Jesus, the Son of God, than his mother, but insofar as both were special gifts of the same divine Giver, it’s acceptable to equate them). Does each of us, however, treat the reception of Holy Communion each Sunday or each day as a gift as valuable as a rare apparition of the Blessed Mother that would make us famous 155 years after our death? Later in life, St. Bernadette wrote write about how God had made her great, not so much through the apparitions, but through the Eucharist. “I was nothing and of this nothing God made something great. In Holy Communion I am heart to heart with Jesus. How sublime is my destiny!” How sublime is all of our destinies!

Suffering as the way to happiness

Third, St. Bernadette was told by our Lady, “I do not promise to make you happy in this life but in the next.” It’s true that she experienced much hardship on earth, the poverty of her family, the difficulties she endured in giving witness to the apparitions, the misunderstandings she had in the convent, and especially her physical sufferings that kept her ill in the infirmary for years. But she endured them all with great hope, because she knew that Mary would be faithful to her promise and that she would be happy forever in the next. We, too, need to live with that great hope of heaven, the great recognition that God wants to make us happy forever with him in the next. This burning hope doesn’t get us to escape from the world, for as Pope Francis wrote two months ago in his first encyclical, the hands joined in prayer work to make this world better. But it does help us not to be worldly. If we learn, as Bernadette did, to convert our sufferings and difficulties into opportunities to unite ourselves with the Lord on the Cross, then not only will the anguish of our sufferings decrease but even they can prepare us for eternal happiness. The same handmade of the Lord who made this promise to St. Bernadette hears our prayers as we ask her 53 times a day in the Rosary or more, “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” We should live with the same hope!  The great means to grow in our hunger for heaven is the Eucharist, as we receive here the risen body and blood of the Lord. Let us ask St. Bernadette to pray for us that we might receive Jesus with the same love with which she received him so that we might, with her, come to experience for ever the happiness God wants to give us with her forever in heaven!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A Reading from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:26-31)
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” The word of the Lord.

Responsorial Psalm — Whoever does what is right will dwell in the presence of the Lord (Ps 15)

LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?
Whoever walks without blame, doing what is right, speaking truth from the heart;

Who does not slander a neighbor, does no harm to another, never defames a friend;
Who disdains the wicked, but honors those who fear the LORD;

Who keeps an oath despite the cost, lends no money at interest, accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever acts like this shall never be shaken.

Alleluia — “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word”

A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke (Lk 1:26-38)
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. The Gospel of the Lord.