Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Votive Mass (French Feast) of St. Bernadette Soubirous
February 18, 2014
Jas 1:12-18, Ps 94, Mk 8:14-21
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Ten years ago today, on a cold, rainy day in Lourdes, I was asked by the folks at the Sanctuary to celebrate the English Mass at the Grotto of Massabielle. That would be a privilege any day, but they told me that February 18, in France, is the feast of St. Bernadette, the day on which the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 told her that she didn’t promise to make her happy in this life but in the next. I’ve never forgotten that day. It was so cold and damp that my fingers swelled so that it was nearly impossible for me to grip the hosts with confidence at Holy Communion. All the pilgrims with me had it worse, as I was at least in the actual cave of the Grotto, whereas they were having the cold rain come down on them during Mass. I remember praying during the Mass that the Lord, through St. Bernadette’s and Our Lady’s intercession, might bring tremendous fruits out of that experience. Today I rejoice that, ten years later, one of those many fruits in my life has come about, that I’m now the pastor of a parish dedicated to St. Bernadette that I couldn’t have even conceived a decade ago since this parish didn’t exist. And I hope that through the graces God wants to give us today through St. Bernadette’s intercession, we might all grow in faith, to have our fidelity resemble St. Bernadette’s and come one day to experience her eternal prize.
- Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Bernadette and the readings the Church gives us for Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time all focus on bad or good growth in our spiritual lives. We celebrate St. Bernadette today because her American feast day, April 16 — because she passed into eternal life on April 16, 1879 — will be suppressed this year due to its occurring on Wednesday of Holy Week. But today remains her feast day in France and all who follow the old liturgical calendar, prior to 1970, where February 18 remains her feast today.
- Let’s get into what God teaches us today about bad and good growth in faith and apply it to St. Bernadette’s life and ours. In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples with him in the boat to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. Leaven, we know, is small and almost imperceptible but it gives growth to bread. The leaven of the Pharisees was what we observed yesterday, this incessant desire for signs, for external works of the law, for arguing with Jesus and rejecting him. The leaven of Herod means a sensual and a political approach to life without sincerity in the relationship with God, something we see in St. Mark’s Gospel earlier when Herod just wants to meet Jesus when he hears about him because some said he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. In both cases, their leaven focused on themselves, on their own works, their own pleasures, their own doubts and questions and not on God.
- Jesus then described a different type of leaven, what we might call a divine yeast, shown in the two different miracles of the multiplications of loaves and fish. The leaven he wants is faith, is trust in God, is confidence that even if the apostles didn’t bring bread into the boat that somehow God would take care of them like he took care of the vast multitudes with the multiplications. Jesus asks us the same question he asked them, “Do you still not understand?” Jesus wants the leaven of faith to grow in us, so that we trust in him more and more. He tells us elsewhere in the Gospel that unless we convert and become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of God. To become childlike is to grow in trust. Sometimes as we age we become more cynical, less faithful, less trusting in God or in anyone else. We become “wise” in worldly calculations but foolish in faith. Jesus wants to give us a different type of growth, so that our faith and trust in him might grow like we saw faith grow in St. Bernadette Soubirous.
- St. James talks about the bad leaven of growth in succumbing to temptation versus the good leaven of growth through persevering faith in temptation. The one who perseveres faithfully during trials is “blessed” and will receive the “crown of life” after having been proven. This is exactly what happened in St. Bernadette’s life, as we’ll see. On the other hand, he also describes the curse of succumbing to temptation and what it can lead to, death. He first says that no one should say, “I am being tempted by God” because God doesn’t tempt. He permits temptations so that we may pass the test of temptations with fidelity, but he doesn’t send them. The root of our temptations, St. James describes, is our desires. God has made us desire good things and we always desire things under the “aspect of good.” Thieves desire the good of material possessions. Vengeful people desire the good of others’ not doing harm. Lustful people desire the good of human sexuality and love. The problem is that they desire these goods in a disordered way, outside of the hierarchy of goods willed by God. They want property without working for it, or the other’s ceasing to do evil through suffering violence, or sex and love apart from marriage and the love of God. Once we begin to desire things disordinately, we get drawn by those desires to sin, and if we don’t repent, we become corrupt and spiritually die, by making the fulfillment of such desires more important than God. St. James describes the process in the following way: “each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”
- The solution to this growth in sin through caving into our tempted desires is the Word of God, not just knowing it, by clinging to it and living it. St. James says that God “willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The Responsorial Psalm builds on this, that the man who takes God’s instruction is blessed: “Blessed the man whom you instruct, O LORD, whom by your law you teach, Giving him rest from evil days. … When I say, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your mercy, O LORD, sustains me; When cares abound within me, your comfort gladdens my soul.” God wants to sustain us, just like Jesus was sustained in the desert while being tempted by the devil, by his holy word, not just known but believed and enfleshed.
- This leads us to St. Bernadette who is a tremendous example to us of this most important growth of all, growth in faith. In the eyes of the world, she was a nobody, a 14 year sickly girl who couldn’t even read, whose family was so poor that they needed to live in the dank, former jail in Lourdes, who spiritually had never even gone to catechism because of her illiteracy. Yet God sees what human eyes often can’t. When she went to the city dump (the cave of Massabielle) to get some firewood that’s when Our Lady appeared to her, and entrusted her a mission, to come to pray for a fortnight, to pray and do acts of penance for the conversion of sinners, to go to the Church to have a Chapel built there. It would have stunned all of the residents in Lourdes 156 years ago that their most famous resident of all time would be this tiny little poor girl, but it was because of her silent growth in faith that she even has Churches named after in other continents.
- What was the secret of St. Bernadette’s growth? What good leaven can we take from her? I think we could say four things.
- The first is a leaven of humility. She was willing to do anything Our Lady asked, even kiss the ground as a penance for sinners, even wash her face with muddy water at her command. In her home growing up, she was similarly humble, as she was in the convent of the Sisters of Nevers she eventually entered. Faith and humility always go together.
- The second is a leaven of little things. She learned from our Lady how to take the little things seriously. 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.
- That leads us to the third leaven, the leaven of suffering. 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. Our sufferings can make us better or bitter, depending upon how we unite them to the Lord. St. Bernadette teaches us how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).
- Finally, the last leaven was the importance of 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 156 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!
- Today in this votive Mass on her feast day, we recognize how sublime is our destiny, to be heart-to-heart with Jesus here in this life so that we can be face-to-face with him forever. We ask through St. Bernadette’s intercession for the great of faith the size of a mustard seed that can be a leaven of growth within us leading us to cling more and more to God in this life and in the next. And we ask the Lord for his glory to make us, like St. Bernadette, leaven to lift up the whole world!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life
that he promised to those who love him.
No one experiencing temptation should say,
“I am being tempted by God”;
for God is not subject to temptation to evil,
and he himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.
Then desire conceives and brings forth sin,
and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters:
all good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
PS 94:12-13A, 14-15, 18-19
Blessed the man whom you instruct, O LORD,
whom by your law you teach,
Giving him rest from evil days.
R. Blessed the man you instruct, O Lord.
For the LORD will not cast off his people,
nor abandon his inheritance;
But judgment shall again be with justice,
and all the upright of heart shall follow it.
R. Blessed the man you instruct, O Lord.
When I say, “My foot is slipping,”
your mercy, O LORD, sustains me;
When cares abound within me,
your comfort gladdens my soul.
R. Blessed the man you instruct, O Lord.
and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out,
guard against the leaven of the Pharisees
and the leaven of Herod.”
They concluded among themselves that
it was because they had no bread.
When he became aware of this he said to them,
“Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread?
Do you not yet understand or comprehend?
Are your hearts hardened?
Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?
And do you not remember,
when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand,
how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?”
They answered him, “Twelve.”
“When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand,
how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?”
They answered him, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”