Blessed are the poor ... and those that serve them

By Simon Hart

This summer will bring the 96th anniversary of the first official Liverpool Archdiocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. Factoring in the seven years missed owing to the Second World War, the July 2019 pilgrimage will be the 89th to depart from this diocese. Our pilgrims will set out on Friday 19 July and return on Friday 26 July, and the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on 11 February provides an early opportunity to pause and consider the significance of this much-anticipated annual undertaking, whereby as many as 1,000 people from Liverpool Archdiocese descend upon a small town in the French Pyrenees.

This year’s official Lourdes theme is drawn from the Gospel of Saint Luke (6:20): ‘Blessed are the poor, for the Kingdom of God is theirs.’ Pope Francis, for his part, has chosen a different quote to preface his message for the World Day of the Sick, which coincides with Our Lady of Lourdes’ feast day – namely, ‘You received without payment; give without payment’ (Matthew 10:8).

This notion of giving is perfectly in synch with the spirit of Lourdes, where around 500 of our diocese’s young people join members of the Liverpool Hospitalité each July in offering time and help to the assisted pilgrims who journey down to southwestern France. It is the kind of generosity that the Pope speaks of in his World Day of the Sick address, when he observes that ‘generous gestures like that of the Good Samaritan are the most credible means of evangelisation. Caring for the sick requires professionalism, tenderness, straightforward and simple gestures freely given, like a caress that makes others feel loved.’

The Pontiff goes on to highlight the value of the volunteering that is so fundamental to the success of each Lourdes pilgrimage, saying: ‘Generosity inspires and sustains the work of the many volunteers who are so important in health care and who eloquently embody the spirituality of the Good Samaritan.’

For Pope Francis, the act of giving – of offering a ‘gift’ – holds greater significance than ever in the face of the ‘waste and indifference’ of much of the world around us.

He tells us: ‘Amid today’s culture of waste and indifference, I would point out that “gift” is the category best suited to challenging today’s individualism and social fragmentation, while at the same time promoting new relationships and means of cooperation between peoples and cultures. Dialogue – the premise of gift – creates possibilities for human growth and development capable of breaking through established ways of exercising power in society.

‘“Gift” means more than simply giving presents: it involves the giving of oneself, and not simply a transfer of property or objects. “Gift” differs from gift-giving because it entails the free gift of self and the desire to build a relationship. It is the acknowledgement of others, which is the basis of society. “Gift” is a reflection of God’s love, which culminates in the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.’

This year began with a similar message from the Sanctuary of Lourdes itself, which celebrated the 175th anniversary of St Bernadette’s birth on 7 January and her baptism on the 9th. This message highlights the impact of pilgrimage and the spiritual richness born out of humility.

‘Heureux vous les pauvres’ is the official theme for 2019 – ‘Blessed are the poor’ – and the message includes the following: ‘A pilgrim does not return home in the same state as he or she was before setting out; this presupposes that one gradually lets oneself be stripped, de-cluttered, impoverished, in order to open oneself to the riches of God’s gift. Bernadette was not giving her family a lesson in morality when she appealed: “As long as they do not get rich!” She opened up to them the perspective she gained from contemplating the other world at the Grotto.

‘Personal poverty is humiliating and dehumanising yet wealth which is not shared, degrades and corrupts us. The Gospel does not promote social revolution, but revolutionises hearts leading the master to become a servant and wash the feet of the poorest. This is not a simple reversal of roles, for the two discover that they are brothers, loved by the same Father, stirred by the same heart.

‘From the beginning, Lourdes has triggered this revolution of hearts. The “rich” are willing to strain to carry the stretchers of the infirm, whom they call “our VIPs, the sick”. But even in a charitable organisation, we are tempted to claim, our rights and privileges. Let us die to the old self with its rights and privileges in order to welcome the happiness of the promised Kingdom, already given to us in the joy of an outstretched hand. In Lourdes, we aim to show true solidarity with concrete gestures, that lead us to continue doing it in our day to day life back home.’

This is a message that echoes Pope Francis’s words about the poor in his homily on the 1st World Day of the Poor in November 2017 when he said: ‘Here, in the poor, we find the presence of Jesus, who, though rich, became poor (see 2 Cor 8:9). For this reason, in them, in their weakness, a “saving power” is present.’

When it comes to the sick, the Pope does not ignore the here-and-now benefits of care. In his World Day of the Sick address, he observes the goodness that flows from the actions of volunteers of the kind we find in Lourdes. ‘A volunteer,’ he says, ‘is a good friend with whom one can share personal thoughts and emotions; by their patient listening, volunteers make it possible for the sick to pass from being passive recipients of care to being active participants in a relationship that can restore hope and inspire openness to further treatment. Volunteer work passes on values, behaviours and ways of living born of a deep desire to be generous. It is also a means of making health care more humane.’

Any Catholic Pic readers wishing to volunteer in Lourdes this summer, or to take part in the pilgrimage in any other capacity, should contact the Archdiocesan Lourdes Pilgrimage Office on 0151 727 4000, or alternately Joe Walsh Tours on 0151 909 2871 or at www.joewalshtours.co.uk.

1923
The first Liverpool Archdiocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes took place in 1923 – a time when Frederick Keating was Archbishop of Liverpool, Pius XI was Pope and Stanley Baldwin began the first of his three spells as British Prime Minister. It was also the year of the opening of the original Wembley Stadium, and of the establishment of Interpol and the modern Turkish republic.

2019 in Lourdes
This year in Lourdes is one of anniversaries: it is 175 years since Bernadette’s birth on 7 January 1844 and her baptism two days later, while 16 April brings the 140th anniversary of her death in 1879. The Liverpool Archdiocesan pilgrimage departs on Friday 19 July, and Father Des Seddon, director of the Lourdes Pilgrimage, says: ‘This year is one of special celebration in Lourdes as we commemorate the three anniversaries of St Bernadette. It was to Bernadette, who lived in poverty, that Mary appeared, reflecting our theme, “Blessed are the poor for the Kingdom of God is theirs”.’