The Summit of Our Faith, The Anchor, September 21, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
September 21, 2012

When I was in Lourdes earlier this month, I went early in the morning to pray at the Grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858. I had with me a biography of St. Bernadette and was preparing to meditate once again on the content of the apparitions and try to appropriate the lessons.

I was planning to ponder what I normally ponder on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes each February 11: the significance of Mary’s praying the Rosary with Bernadette; her having Bernadette wash her face in what seemed only to be mud, but turned out to be the miraculous healing spring; her insistence on the need for Penance; her request for a Church to be built; her self-revelation as the Immaculate Conception; and her promise to Bernadette to make her happy in the next life, not in this one.

But when I began to re-read Bernadette’s account of the first apparition, I noticed something I had always passed over as an insignificant detail. Bernadette recounted, “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,” Sister 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, Sister Emilienne Dobuoué, 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.

Among the various things on my iPad that I had downloaded to pray at the grotto were the homilies given by the popes at Lourdes. When I began to read Pope Benedict’s 2008 homily for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, I noticed that he spent most of his time focused on the same connection between Mary, Bernadette and the Sign of the Cross that the Holy Spirit had inspired in me earlier that morning.

“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.”

Most Catholics, I believe, treat the Sign of the Cross as a gesture to open and close a time of prayer, but Pope Benedict was stressing that we learn in Lourdes it’s much more than that: it itself is a prayer and one that has the capability to bring us into the fullness of our relationship with God if we pray it well.

That insight triggered in me a memory of a great Vietnamese professor I had during my one year at the Angelicum in Rome, Father Joseph Phan Tan Thanh. In all the classes there, we would start class with a prayer, but normally we would either invoke the Holy Spirit, say a vocal prayer like the Our Father or Hail Mary, or the professor would offer a spontaneous prayer based on what we would be studying that day. We would, of course, begin and end the prayer with the Sign of the Cross. But the only prayer I really remember 17 years later is the one Father Phan Tan Thanh would make to start and end classes. He would close his eyes and very slowly make the Sign of the Cross in a broad gesture that must have been very similar to St. Bernadette. The first time he did it, my fellow students and I thought he “forgot” the prayer. Then we realized not only was the Sign of the Cross his prayer, but our whole class was likewise supposed to be a prayer.

As we prepare for the Year of Faith, there will be lots of events, programs, educational materials, pilgrimages and more to help us live it well. All of these will be good and useful. But when Mary appeared in Massabielle to Bernadette to help her and through her others to grow in faith, this model of the Church’s faith started by helping Bernadette learn how to pray the Sign of the Cross well. For the rest of her life, Bernadette taught this lesson to others until she made her last devout Sign of the Cross just before she breathed her last.

Making the Sign of the Cross with faith, love and reverence might be a great place for all of us to start the Year of Faith as well.