I. One Like Us
A. At the end of May, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation, a feast we are reminded of whenever we pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. We know well the scene as described in the Gospel of Saint Luke: Mary learns from the angel that she is to be the Mother of the Savior. The angel also informs Mary that, as a further sign of God’s favor, her cousin, Elizabeth, in her advancing years, has conceived a child. So Mary, now bearing Jesus in her womb, hastens into the hill country to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth – surely to offer her help but also to sing the praises of God in that hymn we call “Magnificat”. Mary brought Jesus to Elizabeth and the child of Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy.
B. Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth set the pattern for her appearances through the centuries, whether we are speaking of her appearances on the hill at Tepeyac in Mexico to the humble Juan Diego in 1531; or her appearances at this very grotto to the young Bernadette Soubirous in 1858; or her appearances to three young children in the village of Fatima in 1917. The pattern is always the same: Mary comes not as a stranger but as our kinswoman, indeed our loving Mother. Her face, her clothes, her language reflect the culture in which she appears. And while all those things may vary from one apparition to another, the gift she brings us is the always same gift she brought to Elizabeth: Mary brings us Jesus, “the face of the Father’s mercy,” (MV, 4) … whose mercy is “from age to age” (Lk 1:50).
II. The Face of the Father’s Mercy
A. We have gathered for Mass at this grotto where Mary, clothed in divine beauty, appeared to the young Bernadette Soubirous some eighteen times. Speaking in Bernadette’s dialect, Mary revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception … and through this young girl, Mary brought a message of repentance, so that millions of people the world over would open their hearts to her merciful Son.
B. This is what draws us here each year–but especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy— chaplains, members of the Order of Malta, volunteers and malades: all of us want to draw close to Mary so as to open our hearts to Jesus and his mercy. All of us without exception have come here in need of healing for ourselves, our families, and our loved ones. Some seek healing and wholeness from physical ailments while all of us are looking for that deep spiritual healing which only Christ, the Divine Physician, can bring about in our inmost selves. Through Mary’s intercession, may many be granted the favor of physical healing! Yet all of us, myself included, can experience the miracle of a spiritual cure. In the words of Pope Francis: “This is the opportune moment to change our lives, this is the time to allow our hearts to be touched…” (MV, 19) … by the God who is always ready to listen and always ready to forgive (cf. ibid). How fortunate we are that Mary is praying with us and for us in this moment, urging us, nudging us, remonstrating with us—as only a mother can do – to open our hearts to her Son and to experience the joy of his mercy.
III. The Face of the Church’s Mercy
A. If Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy, Mary is the face of a merciful Church. Don’t we see this in her love and concern for her cousin Elizabeth in her time of need? in the affection of the Virgin of Guadalupe for Juan Diego? and in her gentle and loving smile, seen by Bernadette in this grotto? So too the Church, and we who are members of the Church, must bear witness to the gentle power and beauty of Christ’s mercy: In the words of Pope Francis: All [the Church’s] pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness that she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching & her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy” (MV, 10).
B. Yes, Mary urges us in this moment when we are so close to her and to her Son, not only to be recipients of mercy but also agents of mercy in our world. In fact, God’s mercy will not have truly penetrated and cleansed our hearts unless and until we are merciful ourselves – “merciful like the Father” as Pope Francis would say. Imitating Mary, you and I are called to be the face of a merciful Church, a Church that sees the poor, the sick, and vulnerable with the eyes of Jesus. We are to be a Church that offers not merely nameless, faceless social services, but rather a Church whose leaders and members—conscious of their own need—reach out in a loving and personal way to any and to all who are in need by practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. To do this, the Pope constantly reminds us, we must leave our “comfort zone”; we need to go beyond our daily routine, our typical circle of friends and colleagues, and associate with those whose experience of life is very different from our own – just as Mary appears speaking our languages and relating to our experiences so as to bring us Jesus and his message of mercy.
C. That is why this pilgrimage is such a beautiful experience. It is a moment when we, as members of the Order, open ourselves to God’s mercy by valuing most those whom God values the most – our malades and their families. What a spirit of joy we feel, a joy born of Blessed Virgin Mary, as reciprocal bonds of love are deepened among all of us on pilgrimage – Knights, Dames, volunteers, malades, family members, chaplains. Together we are privileged, like Mary, to manifest the face of a merciful Church.
D. And just to be clear, let me say to you who are malades and family members: you are indeed witnesses to God’s mercy and channels of God’s mercy. I can tell you this from my long experience as a priest, now almost 40 years. How many times have I walked into a hospital room thinking that I’d do a good turn for someone who is ill, only to walk out of that room, my heart filled with amazement at the faith, the hope, and the love I encountered in the patient I came to visit. Your openness to God’s mercy, your spirit of patience, your smiles – all of this and much more touches the hearts of those of us who are blessed to accompany you to this holy place: like Mary, you bring us Jesus!
A. May Mary Immaculate, who appeared to St. Bernadette so long ago, now touch our hearts as we celebrate this Holy Eucharist so that we might open our very selves to her crucified and risen Son, to the very incarnation of the Father’s mercy and thus be witnesses to God’s mercy, even to the ends of the earth.
B. May God bless us and keep us always in his love.