A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to, by chance, run into a couple of young friends at one of our Hurunui Masses. They had recently returned from a year in Europe. In that time they had seen and done the tourist sights and sounds, and spent time with family and friends. I asked them: “what was a highlight?” Jacob seemed reflective, looked me in the eye, and said: “Lourdes”.
I remember as a new priest in Greymouth, asking the same question of an older parishioner who was just back from a three month tour with his wife. Milne gave the same answer. “Lourdes. You have to get to Lourdes” he said.
It took me a few years, but in 2009 I went to Lourdes with thirty pilgrims from a Christchurch parish. There I was surrounded by suffering and sickness in abundance. Yet the atmosphere that abounded was not the ‘desperate to get better’ theme of a city hospital. Something else, something more powerful, was visible, tangible even, and everywhere at work in this place.
No one ever wants to be sick, and we naturally and rightly do everything possible to avoid physical and emotional pain. But despite all our best efforts we do get sick. We fall victim to disease. We also carry the many other burdens and scars of life’s journey.
At Lourdes I saw, and touched, suffering in every form. In that little French town at the foot of the Pyrenees, crowds of people burdened with suffering pilgrimaged seeking healing.
Eight months before his death, Pope John Paul came to Lourdes as a very ill man: “a sick man alongside the sick”, he himself said. Here was a man who had lived personal experience of suffering in every form.
Blessed John Paul’s mother died before he was 8 years old. By the time he was a teenager his older brother and sister were also dead, and his father died when John Paul was in his early 20’s. Then came a time of suffering under the communist regime in Poland, when he was forced to labour in a stone mine. Much of his seminary training after that time was in secret fear of arrest, due to suppression of the Church.
Before he reached old age he had been run over by a truck (months in hospital and a permanent stoop resulted), survived an assassination attempt (1981), and received infected blood during surgery to remove the bullet resulting in severe viral infection. At age 72 he had both a benign tumor, and gall stones removed. Twelve months later he slipped in the bath and broke his hip (the replacement did not work and left him in permanent pain for the rest of his life).
At 74 Pope John Paul was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which progressed through tremors to serious neurological symptoms. At 76 his appendix was removed.
For the next 9 years of his life Pope John Paul’s health continued to decline. At one point a group of concerned visitors asked him how he was. “From the neck up, not too bad” he replied.
The extraordinary thing was that in these last years of serious illness and advanced age, John Paul became an even more effective instrument of God for the world. A secular corporation would have retired him decades earlier. Such institutions imagine that it is youth, physical stamina, and good looks that ensure productivity. But the success of the church cannot be measured in secular terms, nor accomplished through human efforts, skills and strengths.
It was the young people of the world who could see this super-human quality in the elderly and infirm Pope John Paul. It was overwhelmingly the young who filled St. Peter’s Square to pay their respects and pray after his death in April 2005. The young have not yet unlearned the gift of viewing every human life through the eyes of God. The smallest child will embrace the severely disabled stranger without hesitation or fear. The teenager often relates more easily to the elderly and infirm grandparent, than to the parent.
In 2002 at the World Youth Day in Canada, half a million young people (aged 18-35) hung on every halting word that Pope John Paul (barely able to speak or walk) shared with them. Back home many of their parents and other parishioners were calling for his resignation and wanting a ‘newer model’ pope who was more ‘able’ and ‘with-it’.
Today, (Monday 11 February) is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the day the church dedicates to prayer for the sick. 85 year old Pope Benedict, in his message for this day, quotes John Paul as he inaugurated the World Day of the Sick in 1992:
“This day represents for the sick, for health care workers, for the faithful and for all people of goodwill a privileged time of prayer, of sharing, of offering one’s sufferings for the good of the Church, and a call for all to recognize in the features of their suffering brothers and sisters the Holy Face of Christ, who, by suffering, dying and rising has brought about the salvation of the human race”
We thank you for the Blessed Pope John Paul II.
He was always at the side of the sick,
intrepid defender of human life.
We turn to you Blessed Pope John Paul II:
Let it be that through prayer
we may obtain
the strength of faith,
and the certainty that we will not become lost,
and that with the whole of our lives and our sufferings
we will be safe in the hands and heart of God.
Give us courage through the example you gave of dying,
in the last hours of our lives as well.
Pope John Paul at World Youth Day, Canada 2002
crowds keep vigil at the death of Pope John Paul