Friday, February 11, 2011

The Immaculate Conception and Healing the Sick

Today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was on February 11, 1858, that the Lady in White appeared to the humble Bernadette Soubirous at Massabielle in Lourdes, France.

Later, on March 25 (Solemnity of the Annunciation), the Lady said, "I am the Immaculate Conception." When Bernadette reported this, the particular phraseology confounded some people. They did not have trouble with the "Immaculate Conception" part, but with the "I am . . ." part. They thought that Bernadette must have misstated the message and that the Lady must have instead said something like "I am immaculately conceived" or "I am the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception," reasoning that one cannot be her own conception, she cannot conceive herself.

But is that particular way of identification, "I am the Immaculate Conception," really all that illogical? Being "full of grace," the Blessed Virgin is, by her very nature, both pure and ever-new. The term "Immaculate Conception" describes not merely an event or process, but describes who and what Mary is. She is, in her being, immaculate and pure, and as the holy mother of He who "makes all things new," being now eternally joined with Him in spirit and body, she too is eternally new.

And it is because Mary is the Immaculate Conception, and not merely the product of an immaculate conception, that, through her at Lourdes and elsewhere, combined with the loving prayers of the faithful, the sick might also be made new and healed. There have been 67 cases of miraculous medical cures recognized by the Church and countless other cures that are as yet "unexplained." Here is a list of those 67 people physically healed at Lourdes (pdf file). Of course, there have been many, many more people who have received spiritual healing or been strengthened in the faith due to Our Lady of Lourdes.
"Lourdes should not be reduced to the alternatives - miracle or no a miracle. For the Church, as well as for the believer, a pilgrimage to Mary is more than a journey to a miracle. It is a journey of love, of prayer and of the suffering community."
-- Professor François-Bernard Michel, Co-Chairman of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes

The Virgin's maternal care for the sick and suffering is one of the many messages of Lourdes, messages of faith, hope, and love.

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI
Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes

18th World Day of the Sick
February 11, 2010

The Gospels, in the synthetic descriptions of the brief but intense public life of Jesus, attest that He proclaimed the Word and healed the sick, a sign par excellence of the closeness of the Kingdom of God. For example, Matthew writes: "And He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people" (Matthew 4:23; cf 9:35). The Church, which has been entrusted with the task of prolonging the mission of Christ in space and time, cannot neglect these two essential works: evangelization and care of the sick in body and spirit. God, in fact, wishes to heal the whole man, and in the Gospel the healing of the body is a sign of a more profound healing, which is the remission of sins (cf Mark 2:1-12).

Hence, it is not surprising that Mary, Mother and model of the Church, is invoked and venerated as "salus infirmorum," "health of the sick." As first and perfect disciple of her Son, she has always shown, accompanying the journey of the Church, special solicitude for the suffering. Testimony of this is given by the thousands of people who go to Marian shrines to invoke the Mother of Christ, and find strength and relief.

The Gospel narrative of the Visitation (cf. Luke 1:39-56) shows us how the Virgin, after the evangelical announcement, did not keep to herself the gift received, but left immediately to go to help her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who for six months had been carrying John in her womb. In the support given by Mary to this relative who was, at an advanced age, living a delicate situation such as pregnancy, we see prefigured the whole action of the Church in support of life in need of care. . . .

A most affectionate welcome goes naturally to you, dear sick people. Thank you for coming and above all for your prayer, enriched with the offer of your toil and sufferings. And my greeting goes also to the sick and volunteers joining us today from Lourdes, Fatima, Czestochowa and from other Marian shrines, and to all those following us on radio and television, especially from clinics or from their homes. May the Lord God, who constantly watches over his children, give everyone relief and consolation.

Today's Liturgy of the Word presents two main themes: the first is of a Marian character, and it unites the Gospel and the first reading, taken from the last chapter of the Book of Isaiah, as well as the Responsorial Psalm, taken from Judith's canticle of praise. The other theme, which we find in the passage of the Letter of James, is of the prayer of the Church for the sick and, in particular, of the sacrament reserved for them.

In the memorial of the apparitions of Lourdes, a place chosen by Mary to manifest her maternal solicitude for the sick, the liturgy appropriately makes the Magnificat resonate, the canticle of the Virgin who exalts the wonders of God in the history of salvation: the humble and the indigent, as all those who fear God, experience His mercy, He who reverses earthly fortunes and thus demonstrates the holiness of the Creator and Redeemer. The Magnificat is not the canticle of those on whom fortune smiles, who always "prosper," rather it is the thanksgiving of those who know the tragedies of life, but trust the redeeming work of God. It is a song that expresses the tested faith of generations of men and women who have placed their hope in God and have committed themselves personally, like Mary, to being of help to brothers in need. In the Magnificat, we hear the voice of so many men and women saints of charity, I am thinking in particular of those who consumed their lives among the sick and suffering, such as Camillus of Lellis and John of God, Damien de Veuster and Benito Menni. Whoever spends a long time near persons who suffer, knows anguish and tears, but also the miracle of joy, fruit of love.

The maternity of the Church is a reflection of the solicitous love of God, of which the prophet Isaiah speaks: "As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 66:13).

A maternity that speaks without words, which arouses consolation in hearts, a joy that paradoxically co-exists with pain, with suffering. Like Mary, the Church bears within herself the tragedies of man, and the consolation of God, she keeps them together, in the course of her pilgrimage in history. Across the centuries, the Church shows the signs of the love of God, who continues to do great things in humble and simple people.

Suffering that is accepted and offered, a sharing that is sincere and free, are these not, perhaps, miracles of love? The courage to face evils unarmed -- as Judith -- with the sole strength of faith and of hope in the Lord, is this not a miracle that the grace of God arouses continually in so many persons who spend time and energy helping those who suffer?

For all this, we live a joy that does not forget suffering, on the contrary, it includes it. In this way, the sick and all the suffering are in the Church, not only as recipients of attention and care, but first and above all, protagonists of the pilgrimage of faith and hope, witnesses of the prodigies of love, of the paschal joy that flowers from the cross and the resurrection of Christ.

In the passage of the Letter of James just proclaimed, the Apostle invites awaiting with constancy the already close coming of the Lord and, in this context, addresses a particular exhortation to the sick. This context is very interesting, because it reflects the action of Jesus, who, curing the sick, showed the closeness of the Kingdom of God.

Sickness is seen in the perspective of the end times, with the realism of hope that is typically Christian. "Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise" (James 5:13). We seem to hear similar words in St. Paul, when he invites us to live everything in relation to the radical news of Christ, his death and resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

"Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).

Evident here is the prolongation of Christ in His Church; He is always the one who acts through the presbyters; it is His same Spirit that operates through the sacramental sign of the oil; it is to Him that faith is directed, expressed in prayer; and, as happened with the persons cured by Jesus, one can say to each sick person: Your faith, supported by the faith of brothers and sisters, has saved you.

From this text, which contains the foundation and practice of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, is extracted at the same time a vision of the role of the sick in the Church: An active role as it "provokes," so to speak, prayer made with faith.

"Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church." In this Year for Priests, I wish to stress the bond between the sick and priests, a sort of alliance, of evangelical "complicity." Both have a task: The sick person must "call" the presbyters, and they must respond, to bring upon the experience of sickness the presence and action of the Risen One and of his Spirit.

And here we can see all the importance of the pastoral care of the sick, the value of which is truly incalculable, because of the immense good it does in the first place to the sick person and to the priest himself, but also to relatives, to friends, to the community and, through hidden and unknown ways, to the whole Church and to the world. In fact, when the Word of God speaks of healing, of salvation, of the health of the sick, it understands these concepts in an integral sense, never separating soul and body: A sick person cured by Christ's prayer, through the Church, is a joy on earth and in heaven, a first fruit of eternal life.

Dear friends, as I wrote in the encyclical "Spe Salvi," "The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer" (No. 38). By instituting a dicastery dedicated to health care ministry, the Church also wished to make her own contribution to promote a world capable of receiving and looking after the sick as persons. In fact, she has wished to help them to live the experience of sickness in a human way, without denying it, but giving it a meaning.

I would like to end these reflections with a thought of the Venerable Pope John Paul II, to which he gave witness with his own life. In the apostolic letter "Salvifici Doloris," he wrote: "At one and the same time, Christ has taught man to do good by His suffering and to do good to those who suffer."

May the Virgin Mary help us to live this mission fully. Amen!

(Relics of St. Bernadette Soubirous were present at the Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.)


No comments: