Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11, 2020.
Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, thus giving us yet another opportunity to honor the Mother of the Lord and to consider her role in the economy of salvation.
Some non-Catholic Christians express concern over Catholic involvement with visions or apparitions. While the Church is in fact extremely circumspect in accepting the validity of any new visions or apparitions, she also believes that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37) and therefore does not reject the idea outright, as some Christians do. If God could reveal Himself or send intermediaries in both the Old and New Testaments (even after the Lord’s Resurrection), why should this be out of the question today? Any apparitions approved by the Church (whether of Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary or of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes or Fatima) have a remarkable similarity of theme; there is no new revelation but a restatement of the heart of the Gospel message: “Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mk 1: 15). This is no more and no less than the message of most “Bible-believing” preachers.
What is the purpose of apparitions? One could say that they serve as “wake-up” calls from Heaven. The parable of the vine-dresser (cf. Matt 21:33-41) comes to mind in this regard. Jesus says that the owner of the vineyard constantly sends messengers who are ignored and even maltreated. The divine logic then concludes that they will heed the alter ego of the owner—his very own son. As God calls the world to conversion and then to maintenance in holiness, He offers myriad aids: the Church; the Sacred Scriptures; the sacraments; the example of holy people, both living and dead.
But the witness of history is that all too often the world is tone-deaf to these divine overtures. And so, in the equivalent of a last-ditch attempt (humanly speaking), God makes direct interventions in extraordinary ways, approaching humanity personally or through heavenly intermediaries (angels, Our Lady, other saints) and choosing individuals to receive His warnings (or consolations). These individuals, in turn, are obliged to share the message they have received with the rest of the Church or even the whole world. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas sums it up well: “Not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts.”1
While the Church has a cautious attitude toward miracles and apparitions, it is good to realize that every modern Pope has felt the need to make himself a “Marian pilgrim.” St. John XXIII’s first trip outside the Vatican after his election was to the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. St. John Paul II never missed an opportunity to visit a Marian sanctuary and there commend himself to Our Lady’s maternal care; in fact, his very last Marian pilgrimage was precisely to Lourdes, on the Solemnity of the Assumption in 2004.
What the Popes seem to be saying by their actions is that, in their role as Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ on earth, they want to bring the whole Church to Mary, Mother of the Church, especially to those places she has graced by her presence in a particular way. Thus, while blind, unthinking credulity of visions and apparitions is to be avoided at all costs, a coarse skepticism born of excessive rationalism should also be shunned. Here we are reminded of the wisdom of that line we find in the all-time favorite film, The Song of Bernadette: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
As a result of the appearance of the Blessed Mother at Guadalupe, human sacrifice ceased in Mexico and an entire people came into the communion of the Church. The Virgin at Fatima issued a clarion call for repentance and reparation, which would provide the necessary conditions for world peace. In each instance, Our Lady assumed the prophetic mantle as God’s spokeswoman and merely repeated her directive to the wine stewards at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Lourdes is the best-known site of miraculous healings in history, hence, Pope John Paul’s 1992 decision to declare this date “World Day of the Sick. That said, it must be stressed that the most important healings that have taken place there are those of a spiritual nature, to which I can testify, having heard many such confessions there over the years.
For a healthy, well-balanced Marian spirituality, I recommend three aphorisms of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:
I recollect one saying among others of my confessor, a Jesuit Father, one of the holiest, most prudent men I ever knew. He said that we could not love the Blessed Virgin too much, if we loved Our Lord a great deal more.2
As then these ideas of her [Mary’s] sanctity and dignity gradually penetrated the mind of Christendom, so did that of her intercessory power follow close upon them and with them.3
This simply is the point which I shall insist on—disputable indeed by aliens from the Church but most clear to her children, that the glories of Mary are for the sake of Jesus; and that we praise and bless her as the first of creatures, that we may duly confess Him as our sole Creator.4
I think it fair to say that those points stressed by Newman were also part and parcel of the Mariology of St. John Paul II. As we begin to celebrate the centenary of the birth of John Paul II, let’s give him the last word, literally his last words spoken at Lourdes:
By her words and her silence the Virgin Mary stands before us as a model for our pilgrim way. It is not an easy way: as a result of the fall of our first parents, humanity is marked by the wounds of sin, whose consequences continue to be felt also among the redeemed. But evil and death will not have the last word! Mary confirms this by her whole life, for she is a living witness of the victory of Christ, our Passover.
The faithful have understood this. That is why they throng to this grotto in order to hear the maternal counsels of the Blessed Virgin. In her they acknowledge “the woman clothed in the sun” (Rev 12:1), the Queen resplendent before the throne of God (cf. Responsorial Psalm), ever interceding on their behalf.
Today the Church celebrates Mary’s glorious Assumption body and soul into Heaven. The two dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are closely related. Both proclaim the glory of Christ the Redeemer and the holiness of Mary, whose human destiny is even now perfectly and definitively realized in God.
“When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14: 3). Mary is the pledge of the fulfilment of Christ’s promise. Her Assumption thus becomes for us “a sign of sure hope and consolation” (cf. Lumen Gentium, 68).
Dear brothers and sisters! From this grotto of Massabielle the Blessed Virgin speaks to us too, the Christians of the third millennium. Let us listen to her!
Listen to her, young people who seek an answer capable of giving meaning to your lives. Here you can find that answer. It is a demanding one, yet it is the only answer which is genuinely satisfying. For it contains the secret of true joy and peace.
From this grotto I issue a special call to women. Appearing here, Mary entrusted her message to a young girl, as if to emphasize the special mission of women in our own time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism: to be in today’s society a witness of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart. To you, women, falls the task of being sentinels of the Invisible! I appeal urgently to all of you, dear brother and sisters, to do everything in your power to ensure that life, each and every life, will be respected from conception to its natural end. Life is a sacred gift, and no one can presume to be its master.
Finally, Our Lady of Lourdes has a message for everyone. Be men and women of freedom! But remember: human freedom is a freedom wounded by sin. It is a freedom which itself needs to be set free. Christ is its liberator; he is the one who “for freedom has set us free” (cf. Gal 5:1). Defend that freedom!
Dear friends, in this we know we can count on Mary, who, since she never yielded to sin, is the only creature who is perfectly free. I entrust you to her. Walk beside Mary as you journey towards the complete fulfilment of your humanity! Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
St. Bernadette, pray for us.
St. John Paul, pray for us – that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
1Summa Theologiae II, II, Q. 174, art. 6.
2Difficulties of Anglicans I, 21.
3Diff. II, 73.
4“On the Glories of Mary” (Discourse XVII), Mix., 344.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!