Mass for the Visit of the Relics of St Bernadette,
St George’s Cathedral, Southwark
19th October 2022
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Just take a moment to appreciate that something wonderful is happening in our Cathedral tonight. We are in the presence, here in this reliquary, of the physical remains of someone, now in heaven, who, while on earth, saw and spoke with the Blessed Virgin Mary. It really is amazing to ponder. These fragile human bones belonged to a woman whose life was touched and transformed by the living God. St Bernadette’s holy relics, in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, ‘are traces of that invisible but real presence which sheds light upon the shadows of the world and reveals the kingdom of heaven in our midst.’ (18 Aug 2005) We are happy and blessed to be here.
St Bernadette wrote some words about herself which I think are true for every disciple: ‘I was nothing,’ she said ‘but from this nothingness Jesus made something great;…Jesus gives me his heart, I am…heart to heart with Jesus…Therefore, I must live in Jesus, my aim must be that of Jesus himself.’ (Personal Notes, 17) How blessed we are to be here with you St Bernadette and to ask your prayers, and those of our Holy Mother Mary. Help us come closer to our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, so that ‘planted in love and built on love, he may live in our hearts through faith.’
Like many of you, I’ve had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Lourdes and visiting the Grotto beside the river Gave. There, on 11 February 1858, ‘the beautiful lady’ appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous as she gathered firewood for her poverty-stricken family. Across eighteen separate visions the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke to Bernadette, revealing herself to be the ‘Immaculate Conception.’ ‘The Grotto was my heaven’ Bernadette would say; ‘The Grotto was my heaven.’
What was a source of great happiness for Bernadette also caused her immense suffering. She was ridiculed and criticised, and interrogated by officials from the French Church and Government. But Bernadette never faulted in her determination or in the accuracy of her account. Gradually, more and more people came to believe what she said and saw was true, and healing miracles began to follow.
Eventually, Bernadette entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity is Nevers where she lived a hidden life of prayer before her death in 1879 at the age of 35. Her final words were, ‘Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.’
The holy relics of that young woman, declared a saint in 1933, are here with us. She was not canonised because she saw Our Lady. She was proclaimed a saint because she shaped her entire life in imitation of Christ. Our Lady led Bernadette to Jesus and, with Bernadette, she does the same for us ‘now and at the hour of our death.’
Through St Bernadette’s relics we have a direct, physical link with the holiness of her life. Her story and her witness, her faith and her trust, move our hearts to love the same Lord she loved so much. Asking her prayers we follow her example, as we too try to love and serve Jesus more and more. ‘It is in the heart of Jesus,’ wrote St Bernadette, ‘that I shall find gentleness and patience in desolation… it is in the heart of Jesus,’ she said ‘that I shall find true consolation.’ (Personal Notes, 64)
Dear and beloved St Bernadette, with joy and thanksgiving, we welcome your presence amongst us. We welcome your relics as a tangible sign that the power of God touched your life and touches our world. We welcome you who saw on earth the Mother of Jesus. Please pray that, like you, we might have minds and hearts to believe everything God has revealed for our salvation.
St Bernadette once said to those who questioned her: ‘My job is to give you the message; it’s up to you whether you believe it or not.’ Tonight God is asking each of us, he is asking you: Do you really believe in me? Do you really believe in the love and mercy I offer you through my Son? Do you really want to receive forgiveness and find freedom in your life? Do you really want a faith like Our Blessed Lady and St Bernadette?
‘Our Lady chose me,’ said St Bernadette ‘because I was the poorest and most ignorant.’ She gathered twigs in what had become a pigsty, where drift wood gathered beside the river. Of all people, why did God choose Bernadette to receive a visit from the Mother of his Son? And why did God choose such an unseemly and unlikely place? For one vitally important reason: to remind us that no one is beyond God’s love and that no place or situation is beyond God’s reach.
Sometimes, things that seem so important - like wealth and power, prestige, and self-fulfilment - can hide the values of God’s kingdom. They become substitutes for deeper lasting happiness, for that true blessedness which comes from knowing Christ personally. But when the happiness of God’s Kingdom takes root in our heart, other values rise to prominence: poverty in spirit, gentleness, comfort, justice, mercy, purity, peace and righteousness. These qualities come from a relationship with Christ. They come from living as sons and daughters of his Kingdom. These spiritual virtues well up in our hearts and overflow into our world. St Bernadette was a little nobody in the grand scheme of things. But God chose her to see the Mother of Our Lord. She bears witness that the values of the Kingdom can come alive in anyone, anywhere. You and I may not have seen a vision of Our Lady, yet the important truth taught by Bernadette is ours: no one is beyond God’s love, and no one is beyond God’s reach.
Dear friends, blessedness is found in the details of day to day life. Our sanctification of tiny moments, simple gestures of love and kindness, of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, our works of charity, mercy and justice; over a lifetime these build up into a crescendo that echoes in heaven. Like Bernadette, in our sometimes humdrum existence, we seek the ‘little way’ of holiness, doing small things with great love - in our families, at work, with friends and strangers. Blessedness means believing and ensuring that it’s not the devil who is in the detail, but the Lord.
As we celebrate Holy Mass this evening, and honour the relics of St Bernadette, we may be more or less healthy. Our faith may feel more or less strong. We may be more or less weighed down by things happening in our own life, or in the lives of people we love, or in the world around us. Whatever the state of your heart, the Lord has brought you here. He is using St Bernadette to encourage you to come closer to him through prayer, the Mass and Confession. She is your friend in heaven. This is why we venerate her relics on earth.
‘Keep me, O Jesus,’ St Bernadette wrote in her spiritual notebook: ‘Keep me, O Jesus, I belong to you. I am your property.’ Our Lady helped her understand the most basic truth: that Christ is with us; that he is our friend; that he desires to be a part of everything we experience; that his Mother Mary is our Mother too. This is what St Bernadette discovered at the Grotto 164 years ago and throughout her life. This is what we rediscover tonight. The Lord is with us and we belong to him in all the details of our life
Dear friends, St Bernadette’s lessons in the school of discipleship are as simple as they are profound. Deepening and renewing our faith doesn’t demand super intelligence or extra-ordinary talents. It requires us to desire to have an ever-expanding heart, a growing love for the Lord Jesus and for his Blessed Mother. Witnessing to our faith is not about brow-bearing people with clever arguments. It’s about faithful witness to Christ. It’s about loving others as we are loved by God. Tonight St Bernadette teaches each of us that the most powerful sign we can give is the holiness of our life – your live and my life, lived in love, lived through love, and lived for love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
The Most Rev. John Wilson
Metropolitan Archbishop of Southwark