Homily: Arrival of the Relics of St Bernadette

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This is a great family gathering. Today, this family of the Church welcomes a daughter, a little sister, of whom we are so proud, whom we truly love, because our loving Father chose her for great things. Bernadette of Lourdes is among us. Truly, we thank God for this moment.

And we thank all those who have worked so hard to achieve this visit of her relics to our countries.

Look around, and while doing so listen again to the words of St Paul that we have just heard: ‘You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you… put on love… and may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it is for this that you were called together as parts of one body’ (Col. 3:12-15).

Yes, this is who we are, this is the Church: a people from every country, every culture, every language, brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are bound together by faith and prayer, by a willingness to forgive, by patience with each other, by a deep simplicity and gentleness. In our millions, we flock to Lourdes, the home of Bernadette, there to be with her and our Blessed Mother. But today she has come to us. She comes to encourage and inspire us to be the holy Church of God.

These relics bring her within our reach. Yes, they are human bones that have known death and decomposition. But they are the bones of a young woman touched deeply and directly by the power of God. That power then shone so brightly in her life. And continues to do so. She reminds us that the transforming presence of God is always among us, in the midst of the shadows and sadness of this world.

Her relics are now, remarkably, at the entrance to this Cathedral. They are there before a statue of Our Blessed Lady, Our Lady of Lourdes, for she and Bernadette are always together, engaged in their wonderful encounter. Only slowly did Bernadette come to understand what she was seeing, who the ‘beautiful lady’ truly was. Only slowly did the greatness of this moment reveal itself: that the lady in the Grotto was ‘the Immaculate Conception’, words beyond Bernadette’s comprehension but expressing a truth of which she was already totally convinced. Yes, the great miracle of Lourdes is rooted in the divine plan that the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, should choose this place, this young girl, to deliver to the world her message of penance and peace. Just as the Angel Gabriel came to Nazareth and assured Mary that she was being taken up into God’s plan and was not to be afraid, so too Mary, in her turn, came to Lourdes to call Bernadette to her unique pathway in life, a pathway filled with grace and demanding holiness.

So, as Bernadette gazed at the ‘beautiful lady’, she slowly came to see who it was before her. But as Mary gazed down at Bernadette, what did she see?  She saw a girl, raggedly dressed, scavenging in the rubbish tip of the town for scraps and for wood so that she and her family might survive the poverty in which they had been engulfed. Yes, Bernadette came from a troubled family. She lived in utter poverty. She was sickly and timid. This is what Mary saw. And she chose her to be her sublime messenger.

Here we learn a lesson of such importance, especially for today as our easy affluence seeps away and many face a winter in which they too may well be unusually cold and hungry. It is a lesson about our inner worth, about our dignity in the eyes of God, in the eyes of our heavenly Mother. As Mary looks down on us, she sees beyond our social status or human reputation. She sees the handiwork of our Heavenly Creator. She sees the goodness and worth that is ours from God. She wants us to remember always that our dignity is not acquired by success or wealth, and that our dignity is not lost in poverty or hardship. We are always children of one Heavenly Father and equal in his eyes.

And we are to remember that from the love and compassion that the Father bestows on us, flows our utter determination to serve one another, to support one another, to reach out to those most in need. This, I am sure, will be our resolve, our effort, the witness we give, in the difficult times ahead. Remember that Mary will be looking to see in each of us what she saw in Bernadette: a heart willing to love and to serve.

Now as we give our attention and love to Bernadette she will lead us to Mary, both in Lourdes itself and here at home. At the heart of that pathway of love towards our Mother lies the prayer of the Rosary. Bernadette was praying the Rosary. Mary encouraged her. So too Mary encourages us always to turn to her, in every need, day by day, in joy and in sadness. Not only will she pray with us, but she will also carry our prayers to the heart of her beloved Son.

I am always touched whenever I hear the Rosary prayed in French. We say ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ in a communal, shared greeting. In French the prayer begins ‘Je vous salue, Marie’, ‘I salute you, Mary’. It is a very personal greeting, between a loving child and a beloved Mother. ‘Je vous salue’. Yes, Bernadette invites us to renew again that personal, profound, intimate love for Mary that filled her heart with such joy, and can fill ours too. In these days we can learn again to say the Rosary, privately in the sleepless hours of the night, at home together as a family, with friends and especially when all other prayer fails through tiredness, distress or trauma. Mary is there for us. The Rosary carries us to her and brings her love into our hearts with an assurance and comfort unlike any other.

From here, this great tour of the relics of St Bernadette sets off, around England, Scotland and Wales. We pray that all who gather to greet her, to reach out to her in whatever need, will learn the great lessons of her life and witness: that in God’s eyes we are precious, no matter our condition; that in the eyes of Mary, we are beloved sons and daughters, whom she gathers under her mantle of consolation and healing; that Mary never abandons us but is with us every step of our pilgrim way through this life; that Mary will always lead us to her Son, Jesus, in whom alone is our fullness and redemption.


Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Westminster Cathedral