Homily of H.E. Mons. Claudio Gatti of February 11, 2008
1st reading: Lev 19:1-2, 11-18; Ps 18; Gospel: Mt 25:31-46
Today the homily is inspired by the Magnificat that is sung to the Virgin Mary. Let us dwell on the expression "lifted up the lowly". If I have to talk you about a humble person, I am going to talk about Bernadette: she is a tangible example of humility.
God turns his attention to a child whose life had been and would continue to be extremely troubled, both economically and from the point of view of her health.
In the early years of her childhood, Bernadette’s family, from the economic point of view, was not too bad, but, for a variety of reasons, poverty befell on them. Then her family was forced to live in places increasingly dilapidated, until they moved to the one where they lived when the apparitions started and where they continued to live for some time after their beginning. Their home was a true and real hovel, a former prison, very damp, which greatly harmed the already precarious health of this girl. Few people know that at an early age Bernadette was also hit by the plague and to cure her wounds, her family, as they did not have financial resources, used empirical methods that were handed down by the peasants of that time: energetic rubbing with straw, a painful but very effective cure. Bernadette recovered from the plague, but her body remained weakened and was attacked by bone tuberculosis, which invaded her body and together with asthma caused by that damp dwelling, would fly her, just 35 years old, to her great joy and her great desire, to Heaven.
Bernadette, though illiterate, was not, as commonly thought, a stupid, silly girl, quite the contrary, she was intelligent, she had a practical intelligence. Clearly, when encountering the aridity of theological questions that were present in the catechism of that time, she had a hard time answering, because she did not understand the abstract questions she was asked and the questions would shun away from the mentality of this child. Bernadette has had a hard life, she struggled to grow and also met various humiliations because in order to bring home some money to help her parents, she was at the service of some wealthy families who lived in the town of Lourdes. On the morning of February 11, 1858, no one, not even the Pope, who was then the Blessed Pius IX, imagined that in the Church would enter an avalanche of graces and that nothing would be the same again. No one imagined that God would profusely lavish strength, grace, energy, starting from an unknown village in the Pyrenees, and from an apparition, actually, from eighteen apparitions to a 14 years old girl. The Pyrenees were very cold, poor families of that time would warm up by the fireplace and then they needed to stock up firewood. Bernadette managed to wrench from her mother the permission to go out to gather firewood. Her mother, knowing the debilitating condition of her daughter, was not keen to send her out in that cold day to gather firewood with her sister and with another girl.
No one was aware of the fact that Our Lady was waiting for her. Here, then, the surprise and astonishment of this little girl who feels the wind and ponders (All this reminds us of God’s manifestation when Abraham is going to offer him the sacrifice. God does not show in a storm, God does not show with thunderbolts and lightnings, but, as the Old Testament says, and in the New one we find the same situation, just a small breeze waving the clothing and no trouble at all.). And here was Bernadette’s astonishment, to see this wonderful celestial creature she calls "Aquero" namely, that one, as she will never say Our Lady. This creature appears to her in a white robe, a blue girdle, a veil, two golden roses resting at her feet and a golden crown of rosary in her hand. She does not say a word and they look at each other, the heavenly creature picks up the rosary; Bernadette understands that it is an invitation to recite it and she recites it, but it is just Bernadette doing it because Our Lady moves her lips, but does not say a word. The apparition ends in this way. Let us skip on what happened next but let us wonder how Bernadette felt the strong
desire to come back in the place where the apparitions occurred. This is her recount: she felt, in fact, an overwhelming inner impulse that drove her to the cave. She will return to the cave for another seventeen times. In total then there were eighteen apparitions. I want to emphasize the great respect of Our Lady for a 14 years old teenager, for a child, Our lady does not call her by first name but rather a more polite you. Maybe even here Our Lady is adapting to the times and even using the local dialect. Those of you who have been in Lourdes, may have noticed, under the statue of the Immaculate, the white statue located in the interior of the cave, in the niche, there is no expression "I am the Immaculate Conception", written in French, but in the patois dialect of that time. So we find this adaptation of the supernatural to the natural.
Over the course of these eighteen apparitions not much talking occurred between Bernadette and Mary who often showed up only to pray together. She will not say many things but the words she will say will all be extremely important. It will be Our Lady asking and repeating three times the invitation: "Penance, penance, penance, pray for sinners", she will promise prophetically to Bernadette the same promise she addressed to Marisa: "I will not make you, you all, happy on earth, but in Heaven". Our Lady also sends the little seer as an ambassador to the parish priest of Lourdes who not even knew her. The priest was a grumpy yet honest man, but Bernadette was scared, almost frightened by him. But Bernadette knows she has to carry out her mission, picks up courage and goes on to say something that upsets the priest: Our Lady says that we must build a chapel and go in procession to the place.
Bernadette then receives three personal secrets she will not mention to anyone, they are her personal secrets and will remain as such. If you want to know them, ask her when we will go to Heaven, but I think we will have something else to do and not go around looking for Bernadette and ask her to tell us the secrets she received. The most shocking thing happens in the sixteenth apparition. Bernadette, who was previously urged by priest Peyramale, asked, on other apparitions, several times the name of this Lady. Our Lady did not reply. Instead, during the sixteenth apparition, Bernadette asks her again three times, the third time Our Lady smiled and said: "I am the Immaculate Conception". Bernadette understood nothing of what Our Lady was saying at the time, the dogma was defined just four years earlier by Blessed Pius IX, but, certainly, Bernadette was not aware of it, she could not have known. And it is on this occasion that the reversal of the priest attitude takes place. The priest wanders: how can an ignorant little girl, knowing no theology at all, say what she said?
What would have been the history and condition of the Church if it were not for the apparitions of Lourdes 150 years ago? It would have been very different and dissimilar from the current one; it would have been, even though today we live already in a critical and negative situation, even more critical and negative.
God, when working and intervening, never leaves the situation in the same way that was before, but modifies and improves it. The breadth, depth and intensity of change, depends on men, i.e. it will be different in proportion to the number of men who accept God's intervention, so His intervention manifests and becomes real and visible to all. In the world of faith the situation would have been even weaker if it were not for Lourdes. Not even Bernadette could have imagined this river of grace that would enter the Church, but she was the chosen one to make it flow.
For the Church is very important the experience of Bernadette when Our Lady tells her to go to the spring and drink, which she thinks is the Gave River and, in fact, she goes towards the river. But Our Lady calls her back and tells her to go right inside the cave. This left the residents of Lourdes dumbfounded and the people present perplexed (There was another happening just a few days earlier. Our Lady asked Bernadette the same that she will be asking Marisa in the future, to take the grass and eat it as penance). Then Our Lady says to her: "Fetch the water", she replies that no water is in there, but Our Lady nods and she begins to dig and, after digging a bit, the water starts to gush and Bernadette wets her face with it, and as there is some mud, the face of Bernadette, who was a beautiful
girl, gets dirty and this provokes laughter. But is God interested in all this? Surely not.
This river, that is this spring, is a symbol representing the will of God. In fact, the water flowing inside the cave, where the fountain was going to be built, will be miraculously maintained and will not run out, while being modest. The water, which suddenly began to spring up, immediately produced some great miracles, and it is the symbol of grace, the sap that will flow in the Church. It is this sap, this grace, obtained by Mary’s intercession, originating the big announcement in Lourdes but perhaps it was never sufficiently emphasized. Often there were reminders to penance, but the manifestations of God’s mercy and power should have been more emphasized.
If God is healing men from physical ailments, even more so God will work, and in Lourdes I myself witnessed it, spiritual healings.
We have an exclusive and privileged relationship with Lourdes. I did not know that at the end of July 1963, when going to Lourdes and placing my priesthood under Our Lady’s protection, there they would prepare me and cast the net with which I would be captured later.
In 1973, ten years later, it was Our Lady telling to me and Marisa to go to Lourdes. We were in Taizé to gain experience, pray and to live this ecumenical spirit but, while there, we were told to go to Lourdes and I objected that we had no money to reach Lourdes. "Do not worry, open your wallet and count the money", Our Lady replied, and on that occasion there was a sudden presence of money that left me stunned and puzzled at the same time. Then we realized we had to go to Lourdes.
High above they knew what was waiting for us in Lourdes, as there was a great director behind it. In fact, in that place there was the great call and the great announcement: "You will be alone, you will not be understood, you will be persecuted by everyone, including the ecclesiastical authority but in the end you will win". Right in Lourdes they asked us to give our reply, our "Yes"; they wanted us to say our "Yes" or "No” at the exchange of peace but they knew it would have been "Yes". During Mass I told Marisa, at the exchange of peace, "Yes". In 1991 we returned to Lourdes and there began the story of Our Lady’s book of life.
That is what Lourdes is for us. In Lourdes, we are easily moved when we see and touch the suffering of others, in particular, believe me, the suffering of children. It hurts when you see a suffering adult, an elderly, but when you see the children, so many suffering children, you cannot hold back tears, only through tears you can express your pain. And so it was. So many prayers were said for these children, many pleas were addresses to Our Lady, so she may heal the injuries in the limbs of these angels. Even in this circumstance we find ourselves before the mystery of suffering, which must be accepted, and its interpretation is extremely arduous and difficult. All pain and suffering are present there in Lourdes under Our Lady’s cover and protection.
What is Lourdes saying to the Church today? What must say to the Church? Today is a special day, even the public television will broadcast a program on the first network to commemorate this event, very important historically. A solemn ceremony was celebrated in St. Peter, a Eucharistic procession went along Via della Conciliazione, until it reached the Basilica. They had celebrations, especially in dedicated churches, here in Rome, to St. Bernadette and to Our Lady of Lourdes. Did God approve all these rituals? There was spontaneity, loyalty and love from simple people, but certain rituals have become, once again, for many clericals, a manifestation of vanity, conceit, desire to excel, to be on a pedestal to get honor.
Let us dwell on the other expression of the Magnificat: "He casts the mighty from their thrones".
Before God we must follow Bernadette’s example, once the apparitions were over, after she had decided to enter a convent, where eventually she died, she gave of herself an extremely eloquent picture: "I am like a broom, when you need it to clean up, you use it, when you no longer need it, you put it in a corner behind the door and no one will consider it worthy of a look". This is the way we must be before God.
Away with presumption and glory, let us try to overcome and win the temptations of pride, more dangerous than those offending purity. Humility is a more difficult virtue than purity; the fight against pride is more difficult than the struggle against impurity because pride is within us.
A great preacher while talking to some nuns, I think in 1700, said: "Be pure as angels and full of pride as demons". So Bernadette is the example, is the person who has to shout to the Church, to the Church hierarchy: humility and simplicity. We priests should not celebrate Lourdes for others, we must think of Lourdes for ourselves. We must ponder on the action that Our Lady asked Bernadette to perform, to eat the grass, the action to clean or make her face dirty, according to interpretations; by now it should be clear to us the sentence of Bernadette: "God lifted up the lowly". I can tell you a little secret, on February 5 there was a long manifestation of God the Father, among other things He spoke about the situation in the Church, how some people behave, with names, and I asked him: "How do they react when confronted with this episcopal ordination?" He replied: "They are corroded by envy and jealousy", and frankly I said: "My God, you know that I, especially before your ordination, I felt I was nobody, I saw the others as better than me, more educated, more holy, more intelligent and do you know what God said? That's why I chose you". I have told you a personal secret so you may understand and apply it to your life: the commitment to be simple and to be the last.
The humble person is the person who lives in peace because he is not motivated by envy and jealousy, if he sees the others to be better, he rejoices, if he sees the others to have what he has not got, he is not upset.
The truly humble man will never foster resentment, anger, annoyance and irritation for anyone, the truly humble will not badly quarrel with others. That's why the lesson coming from Lourdes can be enclosed in this word: humility. Some may argue: how comes, didn’t Our Lady in Lourdes spoke of penance? But I say, humility.
The Church, to be born again, needs to take a bath in humility, remove all those trappings, vanities, all those cravings and power that serve absolutely no purpose. Today let us pray Our Lady, the Mother of the Eucharist, to teach us to live in humility and may she make it clear to her beloved sons priests, from the highest to lowest in the hierarchy, the importance of being humble, so there must be no desire to have a career. But if appointments to important positions were to come, the desire to serve must be present within us. The humble one is light and comfort for all brothers.
Actually we are already in Lourdes, how many times Our Lady said: "This is your little Lourdes". Today is the 150th anniversary of the apparitions and how do they celebrate it? We too will celebrate it, but not through rituals, not through ceremonies, not through ostentations, but through a radical change in our life leading us to live our call in a humble and simple way.