Farewell Mass, concluding the Virtual Lourdes Pilgrimage 2020

My dear brothers and sisters,

Welcome back to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!

I would like to post my homily at the Virtual Lourdes Pilgrimage concluding mass.

Well, we’ve had the Opening Mass, Father Peter Sayer celebrated the Grotto Mass from St.Thomas More, Lancaster. Father Philip Conner celebrated the Mass for the Sick from St.Joseph’s, Lancaster, and that evening Father John Paul Evans led a Holy Hour from the Cathedral. Father John Moriarty celebrated a Mass for Vocations from Castlerigg.Various other events may have been arranged through a link to Lourdes itself, Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Torchlight Procession. My thanks go out to all the individuals who helped make it happen, and to all who have managed to be with us for at least some part of the Pilgrimage. Questions remain. Have you had your money’s worth? Have your prayers been answered? Do you sense the benefit from this Virtual Pilgrimage, or will you be looking for a refund? How do we measure its value? What’s next now that it’s almost over? Do we put it all away, move on, and hope things are better next year? What is its legacy?“Tell them, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’.”
This is the theme of Lourdes Pilgrimages for this year. As always, the theme is given to us for reflection not only during the days and nights of the Pilgrimage. It is a lasting gift to each of us from Our Blessed Lady. How can we value this particular gift, given to us in this particular year, 2020, the year of the dreaded pandemic? How is it relevant? How will it help us? How will it help you?

Saint Bernadette wanted to know the name of the Vision so that she could tell the authorities who it was she saw in the grotto at Massabielle. (‘Nutters’ are not unknown in the Church, and the local Parish Priest was justified in his initial scepticism) She had to ask Our Lady four times who she was. Finally, she was given an answer, not a name, but a mystery; ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. This was more important than the name. Yes, names are important, but this tells us more about Mary than even knowing her name. Of all the things she could have answered she chose this, probably knowing that Bernadette would not have heard it before, and would not have been able to explain what it meant.Let’s take a moment to remember just what it does mean, and why it is so important for us. In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed a new Dogma for the Church.
“The Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first instant of her conception, by a singular Grace and Privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus, Saviour of mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.”
You won’t find the words ‘Immaculate Conception’ in the Scriptures, but you will find its Mystery. This title takes us back to the very beginning of her life, the moment she was conceived. And it takes us even further back than that, to the time when God created heaven and earth, and invites us to understand that creation has a purpose, as does every life conceived – to give glory to God. “Before the world was made, He chose us, in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in His presence”
When I was a parish priest, a popular Gospel chosen for funerals was from St. John chapter 14. It is where Jesus tells us, “I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be too.” That brings people a lot of comforts when they think of heaven being got ready for Pat Connelly, or Canon Frank Cookson, or for Father Gaskin’s brother-in-law, Brian, or your own mother, or spouse or whoever it might be who’s died. It tells us something important about the God we believe in. He does ‘personal’! He knows each of us.

He has a desire and He plans. Every now and then it happens that someone makes a mess of your plans, often by accident, but sometimes on purpose. And even worse, sometimes we mess up the plans -and the lives – of others. At best it’s unfortunate; at worst, it’s devastating, and life never recovers. The damage is too bad. We just have to learn to live with it. But it can be like learning to live with only half a life.When things all began to go wrong in the Garden of Eden, so soon after the start, God never lost sight of His original desire and purpose. It’s a bit like what happened in the Second World War when there was the awful failure of Dunkirk. As that was happening, certain people’s minds were already beginning to think, ever so simply, of a return to Europe, a re-invasion. It eventually happened years later with the Normandy Landings. Similarly, faced with the catastrophe of Paradise lost and the broken relationship, the broken love of Eden, the Father was more intent than ever in finding us a way back, even if His children thought it impossible.The Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady is the beginning of His Victory over all sin. The tide had turned. The answer Our Blessed Lady gave to Saint Bernadette – and to us all – is that we are not just passive spectators or anaethetised (sp) patients awaiting the operation; we can co-operate in making it happen. Lourdes carries the truth of this. Pilgrims become co-workers with Christ.Each of the events of this past week have shown us how God touches our lives with His healing Grace. Without doubt, we know about the problems we live in, and even the problems we cause ourselves and others. We know of the problems that are our own, the problems of our families, health, relationships, and the rest. We know of the problems affecting the poorest, migrants, refugees, and the rest. We know of the problems in politics and in nature. They overwhelm us. And as we grow older and as our faculties begin to fail, hope can begin to fail too. But each event of the Pilgrimage has shown us there is reason for hope, not found first in us but in God’s love. Our Virtual Lourdes Pilgrimage has been a journey deeper into that love. No wonder Our Lady of Lourdes smiled as Saint Bernadette gazed at her!A pilgrimage doesn’t make the problems go away. One pilgrim once came back after a wonderfully up-lifting week only to find that the dog had died. All was undone in an instant! So, what have we brought back? What have we been given? The dawn of a new day. Not a new day full of dread or drudgery, but beginning with a quiet, kindly light, the light of Salvation. Christ is Risen. Sin is forgiven. A day of healing. Have your prayers been answered? Yes, because they have been heard. Have your prayers been answered? Yes, because the Father has a kind purpose for you. Have your prayers been answered? Yes, because your sufferings and troubles have been given a place alongside the work of our Blessed Saviour.Confidence in our Faith and religion are found first in the faithful love of God, made real in Mary’s yes to the Father’s request that she might be His Son’s way into not just our world, but our hearts. As our Pilgrimage comes to an end let us hold in prayer for the days to come those whose needs are greatest, those whose despair is deepest. May the Lord continue to bless each of you, and guide your way into His new day that dawned in the Immaculate Conception.

As ever in Christ,


Paul Swarbrick

Bishop of Lancaster.