In light of the World Day of Prayer for the Sick that has been celebrated February 11th for the past 15 years, I would like to share these thoughts with our readers. Pope John Paul II fittingly chose the anniversary of the Lourdes Apparitions to commemorate the sick and suffering throughout the world. February 11, 2008 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes.
Lourdes played an important role in my own priestly vocation when I was a university student, and I owe this blessed place and its mystery much gratitude. Second, Lourdes continues to be for me and for many a powerful icon of evangelization and a living witness to the gospel of life. There are very few pilgrimage places on earth where we can experience the mystery of the Cross and the meaning of redemptive suffering that are at the heart of the Christian life. Lourdes is one of these places.
When I first visited Lourdes as a university student, I discovered then that it is truly holy ground. This little town tucked into the French Pyrenees is one of the best-known pilgrimage sites in the Catholic world. Though hidden in a corner of France, Lourdes has a universal vocation to all of humanity. It has lived this vocation since 1858 when Mary of Nazareth, herself a model of discretion and humility, sought out another of her humble sisters in faith, Bernadette Soubirous.
For me, the mystery of Lourdes took on an even deeper meaning in August 2004. We had just moved into the Salt and Light Television broadcast centre in Toronto. I entered the master control room and saw two monitors depicting two very contrasting human dramas. One network was showing the Olympic Games from Athens, featuring and exalting the human body in its youthfulness, agility and beauty.
Another monitor carried scenes of quite a different theatre—one unfolding at the shrine in Lourdes—featuring not sportsmanship and physique, but diminishment, suffering, disfigurement and pain. And the key actor in this moment of pathos was an 84-year-old Pontiff, slumped over on his kneeler as he prayed before the image of the Blessed Mother who appeared in Lourdes almost 150 years earlier.
Athens and its glorious medalists come and go with the passage of time. Lourdes and its exceptional pilgrim will remain engraved on the memories and hearts of all who, seeing those images, realized that John Paul II was beginning the final dramatic act of a brilliant 27-year pontificate. He was an actor who knew the power of gesture and symbol, and allowed himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world. Those images broadcast throughout the world confirmed once again the universal power of the message and mystery of Lourdes to the sick and suffering throughout the world.
Whenever I pray to Our Lady of Lourdes, I also pray to the Servant of God, John Paul II, who understood so well the mystery, power and hope of Lourdes. Against the backdrop of a culture of death, where life is so cheap and sanctioned euthanasia is on our doorsteps, John Paul II’s public dying and death gave new meaning and urgency to the gospel of life in all of its agonizing beauty.