MAY 16, 2001

We are gathered here for this farewell and final ceremony in St Bernadette’s Church. It is an appropriate place. It was built about 15 years ago on the very spot where Bernadette stood during the 18th and final apparition to her on 16 July, 1858. The authorities had fenced off the area in an effort to stop Bernadette going to the Grotto. But Bernadette had slipped away to this meadow on this side of the River Gave for her final meeting with Our Lady. “Never had I seen her looking so beautiful” she said.

It occurs to me that never does a diocese look more beautiful or a church look more beautiful than when it is gathered here in prayer in this holy place, young and old, healthy and sick, lay people, religious, priests and bishops.

Prayer, penitence and poverty are the three keys to the Message of Lourdes. Our Lady asked people to come here to pray. On the occasion of the 8th apparition Our Lady said, “Penitence – Pray for the conversion of sinners”.

As regards poverty, Bernadette clearly lived poverty in her own life. Our Lady promised her happiness, not in this world but in the next. Bernadette, who was sick herself, chose always to remain poor among the poor. In 1864 she was too ill to attend the first great procession to bless the statue in the Grotto. It was on that same day that she decided to join the Sisters in Nevers, many miles from here. On July 3, 1866 she went to the Grotto for the last time to collect her thoughts before saying goodbye to her family. She entered the Convent in Nervers on July 7, 1866. “I have come here to hide” she said. And there she died in 1879 after 13 years of very bad health. She had been bedridden for 4 years. She was only 35 years of age. Canonised a Saint in 1933, her perfectly preserved body had already been placed in a Glass Reliquary in 1925.

So this evening we give thanks to God for the grace and the gift of this pilgrimage – a grace that has made it possible for 980 pilgrims to come here to Lourdes from our diocese to hear, once again, the message of prayer, penitence and poverty.

Or course prayer, penitence and a simple way of life are not ends in themselves. Rather they are means which Mary, the beautiful Lady, recommends to all of us. On the cross Jesus established a bond of love between his followers and his Mother. As he was about to die he gave to each one of us his own beloved Mother to be our Mother also. The disciples of Jesus, the followers of Jesus, of all ages, receive her and welcome her as the most precious gift of their Master. Mary will always and ever be the Mother of those who believe. They will always run to her for protection and she, in turn, sees and loves, in each one of us, the image of her own Son, Jesus Christ. We, in our turn, despite all our weakness and our selfishness, try to remain faithful to the advice which Mary gave at the Wedding Feast of Cana. “Do whatever he tells you”.

It is in that spirit that 5,000,000 people come to Lourdes as pilgrims each year. I thank everyone who has made it possible for almost 1,000 Armagh pilgrims to be here. I thank God for that remarkable spirit of generous service and joyful co-operation, which is one of the hallmarks of our pilgrimage. Thank God for the 81 Brancardiers, the 85 handmaids, the 45 nurses and the 28 young people who have come to Lourdes this year. Thank God for the 3 carers, the 7 doctors, for Bishop Clifford, for the 15 priests of our diocese, for Eugene O’Neill who will be ordained priest, please God, on June 17. Our prayers and good wishes go with him.

Thank God for the presence of Cardinal Daly and congratulations to him in anticipation of the celebration, next month, of his 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Thank God for the presence and for the inspirational music and song of the Faughart Parish Choir. They have been the talk of Lourdes all week.

I thank each and every one of you, but most of all I thank you, the pilgrims, who make it all possible and who are ever so faithful and so good. A special word of praise and thanks I give to the 155 sick pilgrims. You have been truly magnificent all week. Your courage and your good spirits have inspired us. Your patience humbles us and your happiness has been tremendous. May the Mantle of Mary protect you and strengthen you always.

The final words of thanks must go to the Central Committee and to the 15 Regional Committees under the leadership of Fr Sean O’Neill. You have done a fantastic job. I am not going to name names but you know who they are. Keep them in your prayers so that they may continue the excellent service in our diocese.

The time has almost come when we must leave Lourdes yet again and go home. We once again leave this oasis of peace, this place of joy and happiness, a place which has been described as the ante-chamber of paradise. We go back, I hope, determined to take up again the pilgrimage of life with renewed love and renewed faith. There is a purpose and a meaning to life. We have not here on earth a lasting Kingdom but we seek one that is to come.

The theme of all pilgrimages to Lourdes next year is water, a very prominent feature of life in Lourdes. The waters of the Grotto remind us of the water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ on the Cross. They were symbolic of the Waters of Baptism which make us children of the Church. Because we are children of the Church we can pray together as we did this week with people from the four corners of the world knowing that we are all children of the one God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. The waters of the River Gave remind us of the River of Eternal Life. On its bank grows the Tree of Eternal Life. Its fruits are sources of health and beauty, symbols of heaven, where all things will be made new. Amen.