Hospitalier: At The Service Of Encounter

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Photo Credit: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes Flickr

Taken from a reflection in the HNDL newsletter No. 30 August 2012


Following on from our previous letter («To be a Hospitalier» c.f. Letter no. 27), we would like to continue with our thoughts on the speci c nature of our service as hospitaliers and consider the question posed by Bishop Perrier on the occasion of the rst international meeting of hospitaliers:

How and under what circumstances does our service as a pilgrim in the service of other pilgrims lead us straight to the Christian mystery?
In other words, what is the real nature of our calling?

We know that the Holy Father, the Pope, is very attached to this dimension of our act of witness. It was at the heart of the debates in Rome during the 60th anniversary of ‘Caritas Internationalis’ in May 2011 and it will be again at the next synod of bishops on the new evangelisation: ‘to spread the Faith means to create always and everywhere the conditions that allow this encounter between mankind and Jesus Christ to take place.’ (Lineamenta n°11).

At the heart, therefore, of our service is to lead the sick or disabled pilgrim to Christ, because we believe that He is ‘the way, the truth and the life.’ We believe, as Benedict XVI writes, that this encounter is ‘the apex of Christian therapy’ and that, by opening the door to God, ‘the Church gives people what they are most looking for, that which they need the most and which might also help them the most’ («Light of the World» – p.213).

So the question is, how can the service we give facilitate this encounter with Christ? What do we do to bring pilgrims into a relationship and communion with Christ? What do we do to bring the hospitalières and hospitaliers in our services into a relationship and communion with Christ?

This is a difficult but nevertheless essential question to answer… Otherwise our service has no ‘compass’: it has no meaning and lacks direction.

To answer this question, we have the good fortune, the ‘grace’, to have in Lourdes

of ‘The Encounter’, the perfect model of the ‘achieved encounter’: that of Mary and Bernadette, which led Bernadette to Christ.

So let us try to meditate again on these ‘events of Lourdes’ as we call them, and try to draw out a little methodology around this encounter.


To start with, we have a person, Bernadette, who in many ways is very similar to the pilgrims in our charge: she is sick, illiterate, poor… But like many pilgrims she is also filled with a great desire: a desire for Communion. She wants to make her first Holy Communion and it is in order to prepare herself for this that she leaves the relative comfort of Bartres for the misery of the Cachot.

And through Mary, God will come to her: not to heal her, not to relieve the poverty of her social position, but to satisfy her desire. And to satisfy it not by magic, but by a progression, a process of encounter that runs from Massabielle to Nevers, via the hospice where Bernadette gives hospitality to Christ by devoting herself body and soul to the service of the elderly, as she will do later to the sick in the infirmary of the convent of Saint Gildard. This, as M. Zundel says, is the real presence: to enter into real contact with His Presence, Christ asks us to turn ourselves into a real presence where each person feels welcomed (A New Look at the Eucharist, p. 81).

So what can this path of Bernadette tell us about what it means to achieve this encounter

  • Firstly, it tells us that the encounter takes time and needs an appropriate place for it to happen.

It takes time. The Virgin Mary, as we know, asked Bernadette to come for 15 days, and throughout this time there were highs and lows, dead moments, days without an apparition, other days filled with silence….


It needs a place. A physical place, certainly, but also a metaphysical, spiritual place. Bernadette went outside the town (as at the time of the Passion…) and in the calm of a green plain (as in the miracle of the loaves and shes), with a gently breeze blowing (like Elijah near his cave), at the water side (like the call to the Apostles) she sees a light…. Nothing dramatic here…. On the contrary, something slow and gentle, full of maternal tenderness…

So let’s put an end to the frenetic activity and bustle of the Esplanade. Instead, let’s try to treat pilgrims as we do the sick: respect their own rhythm, offer them calm and silence, allow them to soak in the beauty of the place. People from abroad, particularly those expert in the sanctuaries like our Italian brothers, will say that the defining characteristic of Lourdes is this (super)natural preserved site, where one senses a trace of the Divine passing through. Benedict XVI himself af rms: “Lourdes is a very special place, vibrant with faith and prayers, where the Holy Virgin is always present in an almost tangible form. She moves people, she inspires them…” (“Light of the World” p.157).

As with Bernadette, she puts them on the path towards a communion which traverses real, outwardly tangible things and which ends in the mystery of our hearts. Let’s not jostle these people… Let us accompany them. The companion («cum panis», he who shares bread – colloquially, «copain» means friend in French) is the person who keeps company, who walks at one’s side.

  • And for us to be so much better companions, we need the second clue that    the events of Lourdes gives us: the encounter can only take place in complete freedom.

There are the famous words “Will you do me the favour”…which later will be echoed by the no less famous statement of Bernadette’s: ‘I am charged with telling you, not with making you believe.’ Attention: while our mission is to prepare the way of the Lord as best we can, the encounter itself is a personal matter between God and the pilgrim. There are crowds in Lourdes and we sometimes boast of ‘managing’ six million people a year. This may be true, except that although we are capable of channelling them ‘en masse’ towards the Grotto, Christ knows each sheep by their name. He or she is not a ‘tringlot’ or a ‘mechanique’… It is a question of allowing each person to go where the Lord calls him and not leading him where we want to – both literally and figuratively.

  •  This is the third important lesson from the events of Lourdes: the encounter is personal.

At the time of the apparitions, a large crowd soon forms at the Grotto but it is only Bernadette who sees, hears and converses. And the Virgin Mary herself is sensitive in her approach, to the point of adopting Bernadette’s stature and language.  She certainly appeared in France and she only spoke in French. Another famous saying of Bernadette’s says it all: ‘She looked at me as one person does to another… She addressed me as ‘vous’’.

Bernadette feels truly welcomed, recognised and loved as a person.

As Monseigneur Dagens writes in his latest paper (Between Proof and Renewal, the Passion of the Gospel): “Christianity is the religion of persons. Along with the person of Jesus, what distinguishes Christianity is the importance accorded to each person. In this he quotes Madeleine Delbrel: “the Kingdom of Heaven is personal love”.

By insisting on the fact of this personal dimension to the encounter, we ourselves are personally involved, because this implies that the foremost concern of the Christian in general, and the hospitalier in particular, must be his or her personal capacity to bear witness to “he who is at the Source, Christ” (Dagens). “If I don’t lead my spiritual life within myself,” writes a monk of Ligugé, “God will not exist either for me or for others, that is, other people towards whom I have responsibilities…” (F. Cassingena -Trevedy – Etincelles III – p 187).


In other words: what do I give in order to see the compassion of God? There can be such a thing as bad compassion. As a contemporary philosopher explains, this is compassion which is only an extension of “self love”, or “humanitarian” compassion: I identify with the apparent sufferer in order to deliver him from his suffering as I would wish to be delivered from my own, if I were suffering, that is. This sort of compassion assumes that I am not suffering – if I were, it would disappear! By contrast, the true charity which comes from God knows nothing of this return on oneself, one’s identification with the sufferer and the satisfaction of not suffering. It establishes a different relationship between oneself and the other: the other person is loved “simply” for the love of God, of which he is a manifestation of His presence. (P. Manent – Le regard politique – p 221).

It is very evident, however, that such a “real” compassion demands a strong spiritual rooting.

  • This leads us to the fourth point: the encounter is a spiritual encounter.

It has its origins in the secret of the inner grotto, before emerging into the light of day and becoming externalised. This is always the direction in which Christ proceeds, or “processes”, whether it be with the paralytic or the lepers. First comes the cure and the inner cleansing… what we might call the “Samaritan Method” (Jn 14,4) – next the moment of truth, the quenching of spiritual thirst.

Or there is the “Emmaus Method”: an inner progression with these two suffering, brooding men, a painful spiritual experience and, at the end of the tunnel, the explosion of the Resurrection.  This is the path that one must take to see God and this is why the path only shows itself to those who follow it. They alone see Him…
It is likewise our responsibility, in the service we undertake, to respect this

spiritual, inner dimension. We must not want everything to be externalised and publicised (‘what I have to say to you cannot be written’) and we must not seek a cult of the miraculous, the bizarre or the extraordinary; the truth does not lie there.

  • And this is precisely the final feature of the achieved encounter: it can only take place in truth.

The Virgin Mary does not deceive Bernadette. On 11 February she leaves the cachot   because the family is cold and hungry.Mary does not give her a faggot or a loaf of bread. On the contrary: ‘I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other…’
In other words: I do not promise to remove you from the conditions in which you are living, but I promise to make you happy right in the midst of these conditions.
This is important for us when we accompany those who are suffering. Father Xavier Thévenot, a great moral philosopher as well as a “companion” who was very familiar with human misery (and who was very interested in miracles) often said the following: “it is not a question of seeking to give a meaning to suffering, for suffering is always absurd, but of giving meaning to one’s life in the midst of suffering.”

Here are a few aspects (the subject is inexhaustible) of the achieved encounter, in the service of which we have made our “engagement” or our “consecration”.

Perhaps we would like to say: “If only I had known..! Non sum dignus!” Certainly, but, as we have already concluded, there lies the heart of the “Christian paradox”: God works at the very measure of our weakness “but all you need is grace… ” . And Mary is full of grace!

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