Being poor is not appealing, all those who are poor
share that opinion. It is understandable; nobody likes to
be poor. What is appealing however is to possess the
Kingdom of Heaven. But only the poor may enjoy that
privilege (Madeleine Delbrêl, The joy of believing).
The 7th January 2019, will be the 175th anniversary of Bernadette’s birth; she was aptised on 9th January. And on 16th April we will celebrate the 140th anniversary of her death.
We will also be remembering another saint In Lourdes, Benedict Joseph Labre, the beggar saint,
patron saint of pilgrims, the homeless, and the Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes.
We are not glorifying a lifestyle of misfortune. “Being poor is not appealing …”
Nor do we idealise the voice of the poor though their testimony echoes the Gospel for that could
just lead us to remain in a state of detached admiration, without really changing, without a real
conversion of hearts and lives.
We aspire to follow the same path that Mary offered to Bernadette, an Easter path; to die to our old
self, to discover true Life, true Happiness. Of course, we have to listen, but we also have to engage. A
pilgrim does not return home in the same state as he or she was before setting out; this presupposes
that one gradually lets oneself be stripped, de-cluttered, impoverished, in order to open oneself to
the riches of God’s gift. Bernadette was not giving her family a lesson in morality when she
appealed: “As long as they do not get rich!” She opened up to them the perspective she gained from
contemplating the other world at the Grotto.
Personal poverty is humiliating and dehumanising yet wealth which is not shared, degrades and
corrupts us. The Gospel does not promote social revolution, but revolutionises hearts leading the
master to become a servant and wash the feet of the poorest. This is not a simple reversal of roles,
for the two discover that they are brothers, loved by the same Father, stirred by the same heart.
From the beginning, Lourdes has triggered this revolution of hearts. The “rich” are willing to strain to
carry the stretchers of the infirm, whom they call “our VIPs, the sick”. But even in a charitable
organisation, we are tempted to claim, our rights and privileges. Let us die to the old self with its
rights and privileges in order to welcome the happiness of the promised Kingdom, already given to
us in the joy of an outstretched hand.
In Lourdes, we aim to show true solidarity with concrete gestures, that lead us to continue doing it in
our day to day life back home.
The Way of Bernadette, marked out by Mary
The Way of the Gospel, proclaimed to the poor, despite all the misery, evil and even the mud
The taste of the well-spring which is a happiness that needs to be shared
Communion with the very life of Jesus, who became poor to enrich us with his poverty.
Bernadette’s poverty and wealth
Bernadette knew all types of poverty; physical, material, intellectual, social … she encountered
misunderstanding and contempt.
She benefitted from a two-fold wealth, love and prayer first in the family, and later in community.
She wanted to share this happiness with the poor. “I love the poor, I love to care for the sick: I will
stay with the sisters of Nevers.”
Bernadette knew true happiness: “Oh no, Bernadette, you’re not poor; you are happy, yes, happy!
As we examine this paradoxical link between poverty and happiness, we are helped by the figure of
this other saint of Lourdes, patron of the Hospitality, Benedict Joseph Labre, the beggar saint. He
was canonised in 1881, at a time when it was thought that material progress and medicine would
succeed in promoting a model of humanity permanently free of misery. Further, canonising a down-
and-out was considered scandalous!
“God is waiting elsewhere,” were the words with which Benedict Labre (1748-1783), son of peasants
from Amettes (Pas-de-Calais), was repeatedly refused entrance to the monastic life. Then, at the age
of 21, he set out, going from shrine to shrine, with a shoulder bag, and a crucifix around his neck.
He trekked 30,000 kilometres, passing through Santiago de Compostela, Loreto, and Rome. He set
off on the road in order to find out what God expected of him, and he came to understand – through
surrender and detachment – that his vocation was exactly that; to be a pilgrim.
In Rome he was living in arch No. 43 of the Colosseum! Just before Easter 1783, he was discovered
not far form there, dying on the steps of the church of Madonna dei Monti. A neighbour took him
into his house, and it was there that he died on Wednesday, 16th April, at the age of 35, the same
age as Bernadette!
He would not have desired a different life for all the gold in the world any more than Mother Teresa
would have stopped caring for the dregs of humanity whom she served. She did it for Jesus’ sake!
There is a secret here that needs to be revealed. “This poor man, who lacks everything, seems to
possess all that he has sought, and we ask him for the source of his joy.”
This is a secret that Mary knows and shares: she empties herself to be filled with grace, the presence
of God who gives himself. Mary receives everything and retains nothing for herself. She reverses the
curse of poverty by making it the condition in which God gives Himself. He becomes the servant,
humbling himself to become one with with those he loves. He joins himself to His handmaid. A gift
“The Good News is proclaimed to the poor” (Lk 7: n22)
These are the last words of Jesus’ response to those sent by John the Baptist, questioning him about
his mission: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another? Healings, even
resurrections, conclude with the certainty that the poor are visited by the joyous announcement of
salvation. Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is the secret of happiness, and Bernadette embodies it, living by its light. The apparition in the
hollow of the Grotto brought satisfaction to Bernadette: she was marginalised, had not yet gone to
school, or made her first communion; now someone was taking an interest in her and reflected the
image the Father had of her: “He has looked on his servant in her lowliness.” It was a young girl, “as
young and as small as me,” she called me “vous.”
Bernadette existed for someone. Her ordinary life, lived in poverty and love, allowed her to
experience a heavenly happiness. In the hollow of the dark Grotto, from the depths of the cachot,
she heard and saw, without being able to deny that she had seen or heard. She lived the experience
of the first apostles, witnesses of the new life of the Risen One (Acts 4: 20).
So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the
sake of the name (Acts 5: 41). The interrogations, the cachot itself, could no longer frighten
Bernadette, as they could no longer frighten the apostles, the same men who, just a short time
previously, were traitors, unfaithful and disloyal. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
(Gal 2: 20). The Good News does not reside in an espoused belief, but is associated with a presence,
“more intimate to myself than myself”.
Bernadette remained herself, she did not receive any preferential treatment. Her confidence was
not undermined by being addressed as “foolish child” and “good for nothing”. She acknowledged: “It
is because I was the most ignorant that the Blessed Virgin chose me.” She welcomed the response
that her superior made to the bishop of Nevers when she made her first profession, that she would
keep Sister Marie-Bernard at the mother house, and she must not consider this a privilege. She
readily accepts it: “I told you, my lord, that I was good for nothing! “
“Yes, Mademoiselle, Bernadette, I’m just that,” she said to a new sister who was surprised to see her.
“There were so many young sisters in front of whom I would have knelt rather than Bernadette.”
Holiness does not reveal itself in one’s appearance but in one’s heart. One has to open one’s own
heart to see into the other person’s heart.
We are invited to open ourselves to God, who finds his joy in delighting his creatures, who seeks
them when they are lost, reaching out to them in their poverty who wants to impart to them his
Breath, his Life. This is how he recognises the souls of the poor, as they reach towards the One on
whom they depend. God reveals himself by giving himself. “What would you do,” asked Benedict
Joseph’s confessor, to put him to the test, “what would you do if an angel told you that you were
damned? – I would still trust in Mercy.” A trust in God, who can only love and give himself. This is
how we experience the greatest pilgrimage, which moves us from fear to love. God is my Father,
Jesus is my brother, recognised in the most vulnerable.
Bernadette would find her happiness and her vocation in the service of the poorest. So, she chose to
enter the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She understood that the Lord who visited her,
reveals himself to her now in the person of the poorest. “The more disgusting the poor person is, the
more he is to be loved.” Such is the happiness of the other world, capable of transfiguring apparent
ugliness with the kiss of love.
“Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ But go to whomsoever I send you.” (Jeremiah 1: 7)
“Even poor people can be given a mission and become servants of the Gospel. This is the conviction
of the Shiloh pilgrimage to Rome, inspired by Father Joseph Wresinski. Further, the Pope endorsed
this: I would like to ask you a favour, more than a favour, to give you a mission: a mission that only
you, in your poverty, will be able to accomplish. Let me explain: Jesus, at times, was very strict and
strongly reprimanded those who did not embrace the Father’s message. He addressed this beautiful
word “blessed” to the poor, to those who are hungry, to those who cry, to those who are hated and
persecuted, but he also uttered another which made people scared! He said “woe!” And he said it to
the rich, to those well-satisfied with food, to those who now laugh, to those who like to be praised
(see Lk 6: 24-26), to the hypocrites (see Mt 23: 15 f). I give you the mission to pray for them, so that
the Lord may change their hearts. (6 July 2016)
Bernadette is not only shown respectful attention, she is charged with a “mission” for the priests,
much as the holy women at the empty tomb were sent to the apostles by the risen Jesus. “Go and
tell the priests that they should build a chapel here, and that people should come in procession.”
Women initiated the building of the Church, and they continue throughout the ages to wake
dormant men. They are the guardians of the power of life, always ready to rally.
A mission is not advertising but giving birth. The poor have nothing to give but are able to share their
lives. Meeting the poor can help us fill the spiritual void that many are experiencing today. “If you
are in pain, find someone who needs to be comforted.” With these words Mother Teresa gave a new
impetus to tired hearts. And Abbé Pierre recruits the first companion of Emmaüs by asking a young
person who wanted to commit suicide to first help him carry a mattress to the home of a poor
“See the miracle of poverty! Yes, the rich were foreigners; but the service of the poor ‘naturalises’
them.” (Bossuet, Sermon for the ninth Sunday before Easter, 2) Even before we serve, simply
meeting someone poorer than we are, opens our eyes and our hearts to something beyond
appearances, and brings joy through the meeting of hearts.
“You know nothing, but you understand everything.” It is not acceptable to be poor, but it is
necessary: “The rich are burdened, and because of that, they flounder.” (in a sharing with people of
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise
and learned and revealed them to little children.” (Mt 11, Lk 10) The “poor” understand the Gospel
from within! We may wish to begin preparations for our pilgrimages with people in poverty. The St.
Lawrence Network will be able to provide a starter text, based on a meditation of Luke 6.
Mary entrusted Bernadette with pointing out the path to true happiness. She knew how to reveal to
sinners the One who loves them. “Since you are a sinner, I shall repeat the Blessed Virgin’s smile for
you.” It’s not just about being kind, but about understanding what Jesus meant when He said in
Luke, “Blessed are the poor” then immediately adds: “But woe to you, the rich, for you have your
consolation! Woe to you who are sated now, because you will be hungry! …” In St. Matthew, Jesus’
preaching begins with the pronouncement of the Beatitudes and concludes, in chapter 23, with a
series of” curses “that target the “Scribes and Pharisees, the hypocrites”! (see celebration)
Mary introduces Bernadette to this choice between life or death, blessing or curse. “Therefore,
choose life, that you may live, you and your offspring.” (Deuteronomy 30,19). Mary teaches as a
mother, which makes Bernadette desire to “stay poor”, to live and share the happiness of God.
“A poor church for the poor”: this is Pope Francis’ great desire because it testifies to another wealth
that only the poor can know. Sharing that flows from our experience of poverty can really enrich us!
First, we need to accept and not delegate this sharing. We are all poor people who need help, who
need to be loved. We exist as the fruits of mercy.
By bringing dirty, muddy water to her mouth, it is as if Bernadette agreed to be in communion with
the misery of the world. As if she welcomed it whilst, at the same time, knowing that the water she
found, came from God, and that it was thanks to God that she could, without fear, bring to her
mouth what was defiled (P Etienne Grieu, Servons Brotherhood). This is the moment from which
healings begin to occur.
In 2019 in Lourdes, we might take up this sign suggested at the gathering of the Diaconia: to place
our hands into the mud then go together to wash with the water of the Grotto. Let the misery of the
world penetrate us, let us admit our own misery so that we may be purified by one another. This is a
gesture that can help us understand confession and its communal dimension.
“You are the one in poverty, Lord Jesus! ”
Bernadette is happy, and in the world of Jesus, the world of God, we are happy with her. Our
brethren from the Eastern Church tell us, “Our social doctrine is the Trinity! Each person surrenders
himself totally to the other and receives back from the other. We are reborn of Mercy. We are
grafted onto the filial life of Jesus, who desires unceasingly from God the Father what he unceasingly
receives from him. He is the poor man, who receives and gives thanks.
In this way the Christian, by baptism, becomes that child, who does not create himself, but gratefully
receives the life entrusted to him. He is the poor man who depends on the gift given to him. The
Christian looks at and imitates Jesus, the firstborn. The state of childhood, the state of poverty, is not
a biological or social reality, but a gift and a call from the Spirit. Pope Francis expresses this in his
Message for the 1st World Day of the Poor: Let us never forget that, for Christ’s disciples, poverty is
above all a call to follow Jesus in his own poverty. It means walking behind him and beside him, a
journey that leads to the beatitude of the Kingdom of heaven (see Mt 5: 3, Lk 6:20).
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your
sake, so that you by his poverty could become rich. (2 Co 8: 9)
The Pope continues, in his homily at the meeting on 19th November 2017: Just as you did it to one of
the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). These least of our brethren, whom he
loves dearly, are the hungry and the sick, the stranger and the prisoner, the poor and the abandoned,
the suffering who receive no help, the needy who are cast aside. On their faces we can imagine
seeing Jesus’ own face; on their lips, even if pursed in pain, we can hear his words: “This is my body”
(Mt 26:26). In the poor, Jesus knocks on the doors of our heart, thirsting for our love. When we
overcome our indifference, and in the name of Jesus, we give of ourselves for the least of his
brethren, we are his good and faithful friends, with whom he loves to dwell.
There, in the poor, we find the presence of Jesus, who, though rich, became poor (see 2 Cor 8:9). For
this reason, in them, in their weakness, a “saving power” is present. And if in the eyes of the world
they have little value, they are the ones who open to us the way to heaven; they are our “passport to
paradise”. For us it is an evangelical duty to care for them, as our real riches, and to do so not only by
giving them bread, but also by breaking with them the bread of God’s word, which is addressed first
to them. To love the poor means to combat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material.
Jesus is the Saviour, who wants to reach humanity in its entirety, from deep in his heart, the centre
from which all the work of creation becomes possible again. Healings are only signs of an infinitely
greater gift, which calls for the renunciation of self-reliance. The poor that we are, need to believe,
to hope, to love. Let’s listen again to Madeleine Delbrel: “We have forgotten the faith of the poorest.
They have been left alone, alone with their belief in the human spirit, where alone in a universe with
half-truths, they were told lies. Capitalism has its proletariat, but so does the truth.”
“It is an intelligence that has become exclusively utilitarian, and utilitarian only for a limited
definition of happiness that I call misery of the mind.” The only question that all too often interests
us is, “What’s the point?” We cut the link between charity and belief. Yet it is in the rags of a beggar,
or on the face of a sick child, that we find joy. This joy leads us to commit ourselves to serve.
God is infinitely more practical than the best human schemes against the abandonment and lies of
which the poor are victims. Our charity should never be limited to useful plans nor should we reduce
poverty to only a few types! Progress in these areas requires an awareness of one’s own poverties
and, more fundamentally, it calls for a union with Christ, living with a heart close to the least of our
He made a covenant with us
Our poverty is our wealth, our need of and joy in relationships with others. Pilgrimage together gives
us this experience, in the footsteps of Mary and Bernadette: “I am unhappy, but I am happy. It is the
fact of being recognised, of discussing, of sharing my suffering with others. We see joy in the eyes of
others. When we let ourselves be gazed upon by Christ, we become poor like him, begging for the
love of the Father, thankful for the life we have received. The service of the poor is then a fraternal
sharing of the very life of Jesus our brother, the first-born Son. Our very lives become the setting of
the new covenant between God and man in Christ.
“I do not long to be poor, I long to be Him” (a Carmelite).