"A child is always a gift, not a problem."

"In a Mass for the sick and elderly in Lourdes, Bishop Mark O'Toole, the Bishop of Plymouth, encouraged pilgrims to always see a child as 'a gift". Full text below:

Homily in Lourdes at the Cathedral of the Trees, City of the Poor

It is a great joy to be here together again this year in this beautiful Cathedral of the Trees. I'm so pleased that pilgrims from the Diocese of Plymouth can join with those of the Society of Our Lady of Lourdes. I thank Archbishop Kevin McDonald for this invitation to preach. I hope those from Plymouth will not mind if I repeat something they may have heard before. I first came to Lourdes when I was 17 with a group of other young people. We spent the week living here in the City of the Poor, cleaning the dormitories and bathrooms in the morning, and working in the Baths in the afternoon. It was an experience of the Gospel and of the Risen Lord.

There was one experience which took place in the Baths which particularly sticks in my mind. It was when I encountered the extraordinary faith of a young English pilgrim who came with his carer. He had Spina bifida so his body was very contorted and it took ages to undress him. We laid him on a stretcher to lower him into the bath. Knowing how cold the water is, I thought he would shout the house down. But as we put him into the water he began to smile and his smile grew wider and wider. And then he began to giggle and to laugh. It was very infectious. His smile and his laughter illuminated the whole of the baths that afternoon.

This young man knew what it was to trust, and in the face of his suffering to continue to be hopeful. He knew that what he was experiencing is what took place in that Gospel which we have just listened to. It's what we experience here this morning, too.

"Jesus went up on the mountain......And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, .......and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them" (Matthew: 15:29-31).

That young man taught us helpers something of the meaning of human suffering and how, in Christ it is transformed. He gave me and the others who attended so much that afternoon. Here it is the same. We offer to assist the sick, but we gain so much in return. Many of us come to help, but it is we who are helped. We see our young people, in their care of the sick and the elderly, in a new light. They take on a new dignity and stature. Here, we know that the sick take centre stage. And you teach us what it means to trust Jesus and Mary.

Back home, those who are physically or mentally sick are so often pushed to the margins of our society. We have to fight for your needs, to ensure you are included and not ignored. Last week, a couple came to see me to talk about our Special Needs provision in the Diocese. They have a daughter, called Linda, who is now in her twenties and is Down's syndrome. They said that Linda has brought such happiness, such blessings in their family. Whilst we talked about the diocese and how we might support them as a family, they spoke of their concern about the proposed NHS pre-natal testing which is being planned for pregnant women. This will mean that certain conditions can be diagnosed in the womb. The fears of Linda's parents, and of so many others, is that this will ultimately mean that people like Linda will disappear from British society. It will simply become increasingly difficult for them to be born. Parents who are expecting a child who is diagnosed with Down's syndrome or with other conditions, will be encouraged by our society and by many professionals to look only at the difficulties of having such a child. They will not be told of the blessings that such a person can bring, of the happiness and joy that so often surrounds them. We are increasingly losing the sense that a child is always a gift, not a problem.

This is yet another example of the kind of society that we so often experience, especially in regard to the beginnings of life or its natural end. Here in Lourdes, it is different. Things are turned upside down. Yet strangely enough we experience them as the way they should be. Those who are vulnerable, who are in need, are not put to the back of the queue, they are not thrown away. Instead they take the first place. That's true at the Blessed Sacrament and torchlight processions, at the Grotto and at our own liturgies. It's true in this mass, too.

This mirrors Our Lord's priorities. Shortly, the priests, Archbishop Kevin and I, will come among you to anoint the sick. In doing so we repeat the actions of the Lord Himself. We do what the apostles did, as recorded in that letter of St James.

It's important to remember that the Gospels record that Jesus healed all those who came to him. For some that healing was physical; for many it was spiritual, psychological, personal - deeply human. Jesus knows that a crippled heart or mind is as debilitating as a broken body.

I think there are something like 69 physical cures officially recognised by the medical bureau of Lourdes. But I know that there are a countless number of miracles of healing which will never feature on the pages of the medical bureau. Healing of the mind, of the heart: a deeper acceptance of the limits of life, a deeper compassion for oneself and for others.

Each of us on pilgrimage knows our vulnerability and weakness. We know our need of the Lord. Being here together, and experiencing the grace of this place, gives us the strength to continue on life's pilgrimage. We are touched and healed by the Lord, in the way that He knows we need. We must simply trust Him. Ask Our Lady and St Bernadette to help us live with childlike trust, knowing we are held by Him, precious to Him, loved by Him.
And you, our dear sick and frail pilgrims who travel with us, thank you for the witness you give us, for the courage you show in the face of suffering. Continue to bless us with your presence and to show us the tender face of Jesus, Our Lord.

Rt Rev Mark O’Toole
Bishop of Plymouth
The sacrament of the sick being administered in the “Cathedral of the Trees”

Pilgrims assembled for Blessed Sacrament procession

Pilgrims from Plymouth young and not so young ready for a procession