Saturday, 31 May 2008

Lourdes: a catechetical opportunity that seems often to be wasted

One of the difficult things I encounter when in Lourdes at the same time as English dioceses is the glimpse that it gives me of the poverty of the Liturgical formation of many of the young people who accompany the diocesan pilgrimages. It is great that these young people will go out in such numbers to help and accompany the sick pilgrims; but - and I overheard this comment in a conversation that passed me in the shrine one day during my stay - the "social service" and the "party/fun" seem to completely displace the fact that the pilgrimage is a religious phenomenon. One could argue that the participation of the young people in the religious ceremonies should be at least in part a measure of the value of their pilgrimage, and that it is a bit naive to simply praise the numbers of young people who go to Lourdes.

My "penitential moment" on this visit to Lourdes occurred during the International Mass on Wednesday, when I stood towards the back of the Basilica with about a dozen young people from the youth service of an English diocese just behind me. I do not really think they participated in any ordinary sense of that word, though I certainly did not watch them all the way through Mass. Certainly, at points during the celebration of Mass they were sat on the floor in two or three "circles", and at least one young lady was receiving or sending a text. I got the impression they were more attentive at the Eucharistic Prayer, but I can't be sure of that.

I know I should not really blame the young people - most of them have probably never been taught how to participate properly at Mass. My frustration then transfers to the clergy - and asks why they do not train their young people in their parishes, or, during their visit to Lourdes, undertake catechesis on the Liturgy to enable them to take part properly in the ceremonies.

And the Eucharistic Procession and Adoration that take place at 5pm every day in Lourdes is a tremendous catechetical resource that could be mined to great effect during a pilgrimage. Here are some indicators, structured along the lines of what there is to see, what there is to hear, and what there is to do.

What there is to see:

The book of the Gospels is carried in the procession, accompanied by four halberds (tall poles, with a symbolic cross at the top). The Gospels are, in the Christian tradition, the successor to the scrolls of the Torah in the Jewish religion, the scrolls being a sign of the presence of God among his people as they journeyed through the Sinai and today in the synagogue. The signs on the top of the halberds are the symbols for the four evangelists. The Gospels are here being presented to us as a form of the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, among his people; just as their being read during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass is a sign of the presence of the Jesus.

The Sacred Host is accompanied into the Basilica of St Pius X by eight servers holding up dishes of burning incense. This again refers to the Jewish liturgy, to the burning of incense as a sign of prayer. But it can also be seen as a sign of the pillar of smoke (ie the presence of God) that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through Sinai, positioning itself at their rear as they stopped at night and taking up station again at their front as they marched on the next day. This symbolism particularly struck me as the servers stood at either side of the altar during the time of silent adoration and the incense rose around the altar just like a pillar of smoke. The incense again points us towards the presence of the Lord among his people, particularly as the Sacred Host is seen at the centre of the rising incense around the altar.

Immediately preceding the Blessed Sacrament in the procession are a series of banners with themes from the Passion of Christ: the nails that attached Jesus body to the Cross, the crown of thorns, a palm tree to represent the Cross as the tree of life. These banners remind us of the Eucharist as the memorial of the Passion of the Lord.

The people who walk in procession with the Blessed Sacrament or await its entry into the Basilica represent the Church, the people who are the Lord's. They are a sign of the presence of the Church in the world, the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. They bear witness to that presence in a very dramatic way, as they demonstrate visibly their belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

And all of this points towards Jesus really and truly present in the Sacred Host.

What there is to hear:

The songs and prayers also point us towards the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The words "Lauda Sion, Salvatorem. Lauda ducem et pastorem" (Sion, praise your saviour; praise your leader and your shepherd") are addressed not just towards the Lord in heaven but towards the Lord as he enters the Basilica in the form of the Eucharistic host. Another day, the psalm which talks about lifting up the gates so that the King of Glory might enter was sung. Boyce and Stanley's "Behold the Lamb", again addressed not just to the Lord in heaven but to the Lord present on the altar in the Eucharist, was sung too.

The Gospel reading and the invocations and prayers always have a Eucharistic theme. One day, for example, the Gospel was that of the Ascension into heaven, with its promise that the Lord will be with us (ie in the Eucharist) until the end of time.

What there is to do:

How you stand, which direction you face, how you hold your hands, where you look. These all communicate something of your sense of being in the presence of the Most Holy, the Lord of Lords, the Word made Flesh and now present among us in the form of the Eucharistic Bread. Find the words of the "Tantum Ergo" that is sung each day, and an English translation if you need it, and at least follow the words as they are being sung. Kneel down for the time of silent adoration (see below) and for the "Tantum Ergo" and blessing at the end. Young people who can spend a few days pushing wheel chairs are fit enough to kneel on the floor!

But perhaps above all try to ADORE. Pope Benedict XVI gave a wonderful, two part explanation of what adoration is at the World Youth Day in Cologne. Adoration is first of all "proskynesis" (from the Greek word for adoration), a going down before God who is Most Holy and a recognising that He is much greater than we are. It is secondly "ad-oratio" (the Latin root of our word adoration), literally, "to the mouth", that is a "kiss". So, as we go down, we unite ourselves to the Lord, we make an act of communion, of loving embrace.


miss book said...

Our Bishop told the youngsters that they were here (Lourdes) to enjoy themselves and to make friends, not to worry about the religious side of things.I always thought Lourdes was one of the foremost Marian Shrines, worldwide, and that pilgrims come to seek spiritual or sometimes, physical healing. Silly me, if it has no more significance than a trip to Alton Towers.

Anonymous said...

O to be young and with a group of young friends away from home and doing a good deed too! Let us not condemn them too much.They are young and like ourselves their Faith will GROW.
Yes, they should be reverent and maybe the Clergy aren't instilling this frequently. I remember at the World youth day in Cologne,during the closing Mass many people participating in the Mass from the comfort of their sleeping bags and urging some of those standing to move out of the way so they could see the screens!
Many had come a long way, had endured an uncomfortable night under the stars, were endlessly cheerful and prayerful on the long ,long walk home So yes it would have been more reverent to not be horizontal for the Mass but i wouldn't doubt their Faith.
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