Friday, August 31, 2018

The grounds for my hope.

The last few weeks have been difficult ones for the Catholic Church in the United States. The fallout from the Pennsylvania grand jury report implicating hundreds of priests in the sexual abuse of minors evokes memories of the long-drawn-out crisis of 2002, when each new day seemed to bring a wave of new revelations of priestly sins and episcopal inaction. Ongoing revelations regarding the scandalous misbehavior of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have also raised hard questions about corruption, negligent oversight, and a possible coverup reaching the highest levels of the Church. When times are bad – as they certainly are right now – we need to ask ourselves all the more insistently: what are the grounds for my hope?

I spent the first couple of weeks of August as an auxiliary confessor at the Sanctuary of Lourdes, a place that offers daily lessons in the meaning of Christian hope. Hearing confessions for several hours each day, one is a witness not only to the reality of sin but also to the workings of grace: one sees, again and again, how God penetrates the solitude of the human soul even in the most trying of circumstances. Being at Lourdes as a priest also allows one to observe how the shrine can be transformative not simply for pilgrims seeking healing but also for volunteers serving the sick, for whom the experience of service often represents a (perhaps unexpected) moment of conversion.

Throughout my time at Lourdes, I celebrated a private Mass each morning in one of the small lateral chapels in the crypt of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The walls of the crypt chapels are covered with ex-voto plaques giving thanks for various favors received through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, some of which are very detailed (e.g.: 'Reconnaissance à N.D.L. et nouvelle protection pour mes frères et neveux aux armées. A.T. Mai 1916'). The most striking of the ex-votos, though, bore a very simple message: Vous m'avez fait croire. Merci. ('You made me believe. Thank you.') In some significant ways, Our Lady of Lourdes also made a deeper believer of me as well: my time at the shrine provided a balm for some of my pessimism about happenings in the Church, offering concrete and specific grounds for hope amid darkness and uncertainty.

Lourdes is a very youthful place. The shrine attracts pilgrims of all ages, but the visible presence of children and youth is a particular source of hope for those of us who wonder what the future holds. On one of my first nights at Lourdes, I came across a group of French schoolchildren singing the Je vous salue, Marie after placing a large candle in one of the bougeoirs near the Grotto. That memory, captured here on video, would be emblematic of the graces I received throughout my time at Lourdes. It also makes me think of the many young volunteers who animate the activities of the shrine, such as the Foulards Blancs, French Catholic scouts and guides who spend a part of the summer serving the sick at Lourdes. One may object that deeply-engaged Catholic youth are but a small minority in a secular society, but they represent a creative minority nevertheless. For my part, I remain deeply encouraged by the faithful witness of the young. As I recall my time at Lourdes, I offer again my prayer of thanksgiving: Vous m'avez fait croire. Merci.