A homily by Bishop Patrick Mckinney, 10th Bishop of Nottingham, on the launch of the Our Lady of Lourdes Multi Academy Trust, Newark ShowGround 16/10/2018
Are young people dependable? Isn’t it a little risky to give responsibilities to those who haven’t yet gained much experience? These, as you know, are some of the current questions being asked about lowering to 16 the age of voting in our society. By way of response today, in celebrating the Patron Saint of the new Catholic Multi Academy Trust to which all your schools belong – Our Lady of Lourdes, we find ourselves thinking about not just one but two quite remarkable young people who were given by God quite amazing responsibilities, and who proved themselves utterly dependable. 160 years ago in Lourdes Our Lady appeared 18 times to a young girl called Bernadette Soubirous. Bernadette was to play an important role in the bringing about of the world-wide- known Marian Shrine & place of Pilgrimage which is Lourdes. Did you realise that both Mary and Bernadette were only about 14 when God asked each of them to play an important role in the working out of his plan for our world? God asked Mary, through the intervention of his Archangel Gabriel, if she would agree to bring his Son, Jesus, into the world and be his mother. What a mind-blowing thought – God entrusts to this young girl, a nobody from a back water place called Nazareth, the care of His Son, the Saviour of the world! No pressure there, then! And then there’s young Bernadette, to whom Our Lady appeared in the then tiny and largely unknown part of France called Lourdes. Yes, everybody’s heard of Lourdes, now but not back then; some of you may have been there, and still more of you may volunteer to go as helpers on the Diocesan Lourdes pilgrimage. I’d certainly recommend it. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best way, as an able-bodied young person, to visit Lourdes, to go as a helper. But, enough of a plug for the diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes! To Bernadette, young, inexperienced and no formal education, was given the task of helping the local bishop to understand that Our Lady had appeared many times to her, and had told her that a new church must be built there to which people could come in procession. As we know, Bernadette did persuade him to believe her and now the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a place of prayer and healing, attracts each year more than 5 million pilgrims from around the world.
When preparing for the Synod on Young People, that’s now going on in Rome, Pope Francis reminded us that, ‘In many moments in the history of the Church, and in numerous Biblical events, we see how God wishes to speak through the youngest…In difficult moments, the Lord moves history forward through young people.’ That’s certainly true of Mary and of Bernadette, but let me give you just one more example of a young person from the bible to illustrate what Pope Francis meant. When the people of Israel were going through one of its most difficult times it was a young lad, rather than someone older and more experienced, whom God called to be his prophet, to be the means by which he could speak truth to his people and draw them back again to his love and care. That lad was called Jeremiah, and when he tries to protest that he’s far too young for that kind of massive responsibility, God says to him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you’” (Jer. 1:7). With the help and guidance of God, Jeremiah did become a most faithful and effective prophet of God.
So what do I want each of you to reflect upon from these examples of God giving great responsibility to young people? It’s this, God chose these young people because he knew them, and also because they knew Him; they had already personally encountered God in their lives. They had opened their hearts to his love and, in spite of natural fears and misgivings about what God was asking of each of them, they were prepared to entrust their lives into serving Him in the ways that he asked. Just look at Mary’s response to the quite momentous role that God asked of her, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me’. It speaks, on Mary’s part, of a deep faith and trust in God. Mary, Bernadette and Jeremiah had all personally encountered God. They each had a personal relationship with him, and so they each were able to see themselves as God’s instruments, as young people in his service. They came to know that, if God asked something of you in your life, God would be close to you to guide and support you through it all, and that the carrying out of his will in your life would bring you peace and happiness. This still remains true now. So I pray for each of you, my dear young people, that you may be encouraged and inspired by the example of Our Lady and St Bernadette, by the prophet Jeremiah, and by all the other young people in the Bible whom God chose specially to help him in his work. Never let your young age, or doubts about what you have to offer God, get in the way of offering your lives in his service. Wherever there’s a heart that wishes to be open to God, God delights in that person, and please, please know and believe, that whatever God asks of you he will be there to support and guide you.
I say that with some passion because just before I was to be ordained a priest, back when I was still young, I had a massive attack of nerves and severe doubts about whether I had within me what was needed to be a priest. In prayer I shared this with the Lord; I pleaded with him that I wasn’t good enough, talented enough, and certainly not prayerful enough, but still I sensed that God wanted me to go forward willingly and be His priest. So I said this to God with some strong feeling: ‘OK Lord, if this is what you want, I’ll go forward for ordination, but you had better be there for me, every day, every moment. I know I can’t do this without your help!’ Now, 40 years on, I have to say to you, God is still keeping his end of the bargain. I sense his guidance, I know his help and inspiration. He keeps me going. I know this is quite personal but I share it with you, because I do not want you to let your own doubts, fears, or anxiety about being young get in the way of what God wishes to do in each of your lives or in the way of how he wishes you to serve him.
Let the words of Mary about her Son in today’s Gospel be your guide in life, ‘Do whatever he tells you’. She first spoke those words to the servants at the Wedding Feast when the wine was running out. Those servants took to heart her words and they did what Jesus asked them to do. Water was transformed not just into wine, but into the best of wines! If each of you listen to those words of Mary and put them into practice, Jesus will transform your lives too. He will bless what you offer him by way of your gifts, talents, energy time spent with him in prayer, and He will use it well in his service. Never let your youthfulness get in the way of serving God.