I Believe in the Catholic Church – the one I’m not walking away from!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Easter, 2013

Mhairi Spence, Team GB Pentathlete

Do you remember Mhairi Spence? She was one of the Team GB pentathletes at the London 2012 Olympics. Like many of the British competitors, she was tipped for a gold medal – indeed, the last possible gold of the games, because the Pentathlon finished just before the Closing Ceremony. So on August 12 last year, Mhairi Spence stepped out. By lunchtime, following the fencing and swimming rounds, she was in ninth place and feeling confident – next came the show-jumping, which was her strongest event.

Then it all went horribly wrong.

In the Pentathlon, horses are assigned to competitors at random, and the one assigned to Miss Spence was not having a good day. Horse and rider simply didn’t click with each other, and soon Spence held the dismal tally of four downed fences and 104 penalty points. Things went from bad to worse in the final combined running-and-shooting event. Golden hope Spence finished at 21st place, a forgotten footnote of British Olympic history.

Imagine being an Olympic failure in those months when the UK was basking in Olympic Glory. Each television report and newspaper article reminded Spence that she was not one of the Team GB medalists. So she ran away – to Australia, where she could be a nobody. Asked what she did for a living, she said she worked as a hairdresser, or for the post office. And for a while, she was able to leave her broken dreams behind.

Easter Day begins for each one of us in the same low place as Mhairi Spence. Hope shattered in one cruel moment, followed by an aftermath of despair. The Apostles, excepting only the one beloved by Jesus, ran away from the foot of the Cross. On Sunday morning, two disciples from Emmaus would begin a forlorn walk towards their home, with nothing but their reminiscences for company.

But in the coldest of winters, we might yet see signs of spring.

Spence found herself on a sailing trip with other tourists, when one said to her: “Did you hear the rumour? They said there was an Olympic Athelete on the island we’ve just sailed from!” A few weeks later, in a conversation with a temporary room-mate, she was forced to admit her true identity. The room-mate “couldn’t get over it, … sharing a room with someone who had competed in London!” Where we see brokenness, others see something of great value. And this can also be true of the way we view our own church.

At this Easter Mass, we will be invited soon to renew our baptismal promises. As promises go, they don’t really sound like promises. I am going to ask you if you believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. Surely “believing” something is something to do with ideas we hold in our heads?

Year of Faith Logo – Welsh & English

This year, the worldwide church is keeping a Year of Faith. And the word “faith” is the key. We are not just declaring that we believe in certain things as an intellectual exercise. We are declaring that we put our faith in God-the-Father, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. And that requires action.

If we put our faith in God, we must keep all Ten Commandments, including the one about keeping each sabbath as a Holy Day. If we put our faith in Jesus, we will obey his command to “do this in memory of me”, by participating in Mass. If we put our faith in the Holy Spirit, we will keep asking the Spirit to live within us, to nudge us to be God’s hands, feet and voice in the world around us.

By declaring we “believe” in the Catholic Church, we are also promising to continue placing our faith in our church. This is a very dangerous thing to do – because our church is composed entirely of fallible human beings! They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – and a parish is the family we share under the One Father, who is God.

Sooner or later in church communities, things go wrong. People have arguments. A word or action causes offence. And sometimes we don’t deal with that in the mature way God asks of us. It’s not uncommon for those who feel offended by something at church to move to another parish, or stop coming altogether. Let’s recognize this danger, and renew our commitment to this parish because it is God’s parish, not because of individual personalities or style.

When we renew our promise, today, to put our faith in the Catholic Church, we are pledging to make our parish the best that it can be. We are pledging that if something upsets us, we won’t walk away, but we will deal with the issue. Within a Christian community, if we disagree with another person – even a member of the clergy or parish group leader – we ought to be able to have a civil conversation. Often enough it will clear up a simple misunderstanding; sometimes we can agree to differ about the way a decision could have gone.

Sometimes a priest, deacon, or lay leader will have been having a bad day and will be only too happy to apologise as soon as attention is drawn to the hurt which has been caused. When her horse had a bad day, Mhairi Spence could only regret its behaviour. But when we have a disagreement, we have the power not only to regret, but also to reconcile. It is part of the commitment we renew today, to believe that within this community, we can reconcile with one another. A parish where people walk away is no advert for the Gospel. A parish where people love each other enough to work through their problems is a sign of hope for the world.

Mhairi Spence did run away, to the ends of the earth – but it was there that she realised that she’d made the wrong decision. Running away would neither make her happy, nor quench the desire for Olympic gold which still blazed in her heart. So she came back. Running away is never the answer – in life, in sport, or in God’s church. But Jesus came to remind us that when we run, the Good Shepherd runs after us, and the Forgiving Father opens wide his arms awaiting our return. Whenever this happens in the life of a church, the dying and rising of Christ is lived out all over again.

Jesus Christ, whose death on Friday brought fear and despair to us all, is risen and lives beyond the reach of death for ever. He invites us to become not a parish of brokenness, but a community of reconciliation.

Just last week, Mhairi Spence was competing in the Pentathlon World Cup in Rio de Janiero. She’s not yet back in the medals, but she is in the competition.

In a few moments, we’ll renew the vows of our baptism, promising to live as members of the Catholic Church – committing ourselves to this parish and to making it work in the best way possible. This is also a competition – it is one we have to re-enter each Easter, and the Lord has rich prizes for all who run the race to its conclusion. Are you in?

Remembering the One

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Good Friday 2013

At certain times of year, we remember those who died so that we may be free.

In November, we remember the many who died on the fields of Flanders, and the nearer shores of Normandy, and the few who flew in the Battle of Britain – each giving their life to keep our nation free from an oppressive enemy.

Today, we remember the One who died so that we may inherit eternal life.

Jesus dares to challenge us to forgive others, so that all may live in a realm where all is forgiven. He was not ashamed to forgive those who condemned him to death.

Jesus dares to ask us to check our anger, so that we do no harm even to those who deserve it. If we should feel that someone deserves to die for their actions, Jesus has already accepted their death penalty.

Jesus dares to lay down his life because, in God’s plan, a sacrifice is needed so that we, imperfect, human beings could be restored to friendship with God. This is the meaning of the animal sacrifices which were part of the Jewish Law, but which have been fulfilled more perfectly by the Lamb of God.

It is most pleasing to God that you have come to worship today. God invites you not only to honour the death of the Lamb of God as your Saviour, but to come to know Jesus as a living friend – a relationship which grows first through your personal prayer, but would be enriched by the spiritual gifts of the Word of God and the Bread of Life which we offer in this church, and in every church, each Sunday. If there is a hunger in your heart to know God better, to test whether God’s love is real, perhaps this year is the year to take a step of faith, to risk a conversation with a Christian friend, or see if Sunday service has something to offer you.

At every Mass, Sunday by Sunday, weekday by weekday, we remember the sacrifice made by Jesus. We are not bidden to understand how this sacrifice works. We are asked to trust in the message of Jesus, that what He did was indeed required so that we might not spend eternity in the realm apart from God, but enter eternal happiness as God’s adopted children.

If we look deep enough into our souls, we see behind the mask each one of us wears, to the frightened child who asks: am I valued? Am I loved? Am I worth anything?

God’s answer is Jesus. Jesus who blessed the little children. Jesus who offered forgiveness to those disabled, rejected by society, or who considered themselves beyond redemption. Jesus who stretched out his arms on the Cross because He loves us, and included our sin in the price he was willing to pay.

In November, we lay a wreath of poppies, to proclaim our gratitude for those who defended our nation.

Today, we pay homage to a cross of wood, on which our Saviour was executed as the punishment for all the wrongdoing the human race would ever commit.

Venerate this cross with joy, for this is your liberation, this is your healing, this is your victory over your own brokenness – this is your share in a great act of thanksgiving to the God who is Love.

A Night to Remember

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Maundy Thursday, 2013

Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world. Another way of translating the Bible into English says that Jesus “showed the full extent of his love”; yet another, that he loved his disciples “to the very end”.

There are times in life when we have to say “Goodbye”.

When we recognise that an ending is approaching, we pay more attention, and some of the rules which otherwise apply can be set aside. Friends spending a day together might hug at the end, though they would not dream of cuddling otherwise. A fond farewell can be a precious memory which lasts a lifetime; an awkward farewell can sour the memory of a good relationship.

A time of parting is a moment when it becomes appropriate to let down our guard, to express love in a deeper way then we do in our ongoing relationships. I have always cherished the memory of a day after my final exams as an undergraduate, when I took a walk in the park with a close friend and we found ourselves holding hands. She was never my girlfriend, but because it was a parting, there was something beautiful, appropriate, and unforgettable about this moment of closeness before we went our separate ways.

Jesus is about to leave his chosen Disciples, and chooses to leave them with something to remember. Three of the Gospel writers explain how Jesus took the familiar passover ritual but gave it an unexpected twist – henceforth the unleavened bread would be his own Body, and the cup of wine, his Blood. Tonight, St John focuses on the humble action of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the same way that a household slave would have done. We might hear echoes of this in current political commentary about whether NHS nurses are keen to provide basic washing, feeding and toileting for less able patients. In one action, Jesus teaches us something about humility and something about service.

I wonder what the lesson might be for you?

In your life, is there someone who needs you, but whom you have been avoiding, for fear of what they might ask?

In your life, is there someone whose presence you take for granted, but who might really appreciate an affectionate word or gesture?

In your life, are there duties of care which have become routine or burdensome, which need to be approached with a renewed decision to make present the love of God?

I know that sometimes churches use this Maundy Thursday service as an opportunity to invite all the parishioners to take part in some symbolic action of mutual service. I’m not going to do that here and now, because the “director’s instructions” in the Missal ask us to use this special time in the year to re-enact what Jesus did at the Last Supper – washing the feet of the men he had chosen to be his leading disciples. Part of the power of the symbol is that it is a man serving men – one woman tending to another’s body would not be such an unusual sight.

Liturgy is normally about taking part, but this one action is different. For most of us, we will be spectators, not participants. This is deliberate – because you are invited to watch and remember. Watch, and try to understand what message Jesus is giving us. Watch this action as if it were a visit to your best friend, dying of cancer, or the last glimpse of your sister on the day before emigrating to Australia. Watch this action as if it were the last request of a condemned man who is to be executed in the morning – for this is exactly what it is.

Remember, says Jesus. Remember to be humble. Remember to serve one another’s needs. And remember that tonight I am to give my very body to be broken for the sins of the world. FIRST understand – then go out from this place and imitate this in your life.

Everyday Treachery

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Tuesday of Holy Week

“One of you is going to betray me.”

Jesus, at table with those he loved, in the company of the Twelve He had personally chosen, makes a shocking statement. And yet it echoes the experience of the Christian Church and of Christian Families throughout the ages.

Just as Jesus chooses human beings, with all their imperfections, weaknesses and vulnerability to temptation, so the Church from age to age, and every human family, is composed of fallible human beings. And among those beautiful, precious, beloved people are those whom we know are more likely to let us down. The one with a drink problem. The one who gambles. The one who cannot bear to be thought lacking, so makes countless promises which cannot be kept.

In the Church, we have experienced treachery in the form of priests abusing their power over children and vulnerable adults; through the mis-handling of money; through the understandable slowness of leaders to address the wrongdoing of their underlings.

In many families there is a child who will walk away from the family home with the impetuosity of youth, only to return like the prodigal son when there are no other options left.

Sometimes betrayal comes as a bolt from the blue, but often enough, we see it coming. We are all too aware of the weaknesses of those we love. We hope for the best but expect trouble… yet because we are people who love, we still dare to hope. Love is always patient, always endures, and bears no record of wrong.

Simon Peter cannot follow Jesus into betrayal there and then, but Jesus says he will follow later. Each one of us follows Jesus down the bridlepath of betrayal when we dare to love someone whose vulnerability is clear. Each one of us follows Jesus on the royal road of forgiveness when we welcome back those who have betrayed us, with the embrace of love.

True forgiveness means we offer our friendship and affection willingly and freely to a contrite traitor – not once, but seventy times seven. As for trust, this takes longer to restore, as Simon Peter would discover in a difficult conversation with the Risen Christ.

To which of your loved ones, today, can you say in your heart: “One of you is going to betray me?” Choose to love without limit – choose to love as Christ did – and in your life also, you will live the Christian life of treachery and forgiveness – in your life also, God will be glorified!

Enforcer or Encourager?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Year C

Is God your enforcer, or your encourager?

If you had to draw a picture of God, what image would be the first to come to mind? A policeman? A personal trainer? A prison guard? It’s all too easy to focus on the part of the Gospel which points us to high moral standards and leap to the conclusion that God is out to get us if we don’t live up to them.

In the First Reading, God’s people arrive at the Promised Land, and we’re reminded that even during their time wandering in the desert, God provided manna for them – God was looking after them even while they served their 40-year punishment for not trusting God’s commands in the first place.

Today’s other readings don’t focus on the God who disciplines us, but on the God who wants us to live in that Promised Land, that place of peace and harmony. God is the proud parent, wanting the very best for each one of His children, encouraging them to do the right thing but holding His breath while they mess up.

I’m not a parent myself, so I’m going to borrow my Mum’s eyes for a moment. I left home for the first time when I was not quite 18. Mum had very mixed feelings. Yes, I’d won a place at Oxford University and was off to fulfil my dreams – but Mum knew that I was still very young in the ways of the world and was desperately worried about what was going to happen to little Gareth, out there, on his own. Well, as you can see, I survived – but yes, my first three years away from home were also part of the school of hard knocks.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, let’s acknowledge the very difficult emotional challenge of being a mother. If your child does something idiotic, your maternal instinct is to protect and soothe – while your parental responsibility is to speak a word of correction. Indeed, every parent will feel this tension between caring and coaching, though different families manage this in different ways. Yet every parent knows the day will come when their child has to be given enough space to make their own life-decisions, with all the risks that go along with that!

We are God’s children, and God speaks to us – through the Church and through our own conscience – about the standards that we should keep. If God has spoken to us about Right and Wrong, it’s because God wants the very best for His children, not because He is out to get us! And the Christian life is one where God is ALWAYS calling us to raise our game, to live a higher standard. The great saints weren’t people likely to commit the big sins against the Ten Commandments, but God still challenged them to improve with the small stuff. For St Therese of Lisieux the challenge went like this: “You see that nun who gets on your nerves? Make a special point of being charming to her!” St David must have had something similar in mind, in his dying words to “be faithful in the little things”. For us, it might be that in the stress of ordinary family life, we don’t treat our spouse or our children with the tenderness or understanding which they deserve. In our modern society, each one of us has to deal with ethical questions about recycling, care for the environment, and making economic decisions which are fair to the poorest members of our society. So whether we’re tempted most by pleasure, money, sex or power, each one of us will have some area of our life where we are struggling with temptation, struggling to put the “right thing” ahead of self interest.

RELAX! The normal way of being a Catholic is to spend our life struggling against temptation. Even Jesus was tempted. But look out – there are two wrong ways of handling it.

The first trap is to beat ourselves up. “I’m never going to be perfect! What hope is there for me in this church?”

What is the church meant to be?

A community of shared values.

We all aspire to those values.

We all fail, at times.

We encourage each other to keep going.

The second trap is to reject the values. “These standards are inhuman! They are unattainable!”

No! Jesus shows us the standard. Jesus shows us the perfect example of a human being pouring out love without limit. This is our goal – and without a goal, where would we go? But we can’t do it in our own strength, only by God’s grace. We are meant to find fulfilment in being partners with God.

The younger son says “give me my inheritance now, and I will spend it my way.” Eventually, poverty drives him home to the Father, and only then does he realise the depth of the Father’s love.

The elder son is looking for affirmation, to be recognised as an important person in his own right. Only when he puts his jealousy into words can the Father challenge him to enjoy his status as a Son of God rather than as an independent person.

Both sons got it wrong. But God is merciful! In the Old Testament, our God proclaims to Moses that he is the God of mercy. God offers us this deal: keep admitting that you are not perfect, and things will be great between us.

The world we live in today puts the individual at the centre. You are important! You have rights! Assert your rights! As far as possible, society will make WHAT YOU WANT the most important thing.

No, says God, that way lies tension. Make WHAT GOD WANTS the most important thing, and come together around that. You will fail. Failure is OK. Look at the Cross – the greatest failure in human history! God-in-Christ comes down to earth to preach to his people, to lead them in building a community of love – and they kill him! But God is a specialist in bringing life out of death, success out of failure, hope out of despair. THIS is the God we celebrate every Sunday. This is the God I worship, the one who encourages me to try again when I get things wrong, the one who always offers a fresh start as long as I’m humble enough to admit my mistakes.

My God is the one who encourages me never to lower my standards, always to try again, and to rejoice in my status as a beloved member of His family. You are welcome to share my God. But perhaps your God is the policeman, the punisher, the prison guard. Might I be bold enough to suggest that your God is a false God? Your God certainly doesn’t sound like the one Jesus came to introduce us to. So I ask you: is your God your enforcer, or your encourager? And as always, if this stirs up deep questions, you are more than welcome to speak to me confidentially for spiritual direction. Let me introduce you to the Father Jesus came to reveal!

Am I doubting that God loves me? If so, what hurt or bad experience do I need to talk over with someone I trust?

When did I last ask God for something good? Am I afraid it will not be granted?

What experiences have I had of unanswered prayer? Have they affected the way I pray?

Shrines of Belgium: Banneux

Last year, I visited the shrine of Pellevoisin in France. Because the Eurostar Train was severely delayed, I was given a free ticket in compensation – but the condition was that I had to book a journey to Paris, Lille or Brussels within one year. So I decided to spend a few days in Brussels and visit some of the shrines of Belgium. On 7 March 2013, I travelled to Banneux.

Following the apparitions of Our Lady at Beauraing, from 29 November 1932 until 3 January 1933, there were many copycat claims of the Mother of God appearing elsewhere in Belgium. Most were rejected as spurious by the church authorities, but one had the ring of truth. A 12-year-old girl, Mariette Beco, claimed that the Mother of God had appeared to her in the village of Banneux eight times from 15 January 1933 until 2 March of the same year. During the second apparition (18th January), Mariette was directed to place her hands in a pool of water where a local spring welled up. The Lady said: “This spring is reserved for me.”

The place of the spring in Banneux

The place of the spring in Banneux

The following day, the Lady appeared again, and when Mariette asked after her identity, the Lady declared herself “the Virgin of the Poor.” The Virgin then led the child to the spring. Mariette asked the Lady to clarify for whom the spring was reserved, and the reply came: “this spring is reserved for all nations… for the sick.” The next day, the Lady asked for “a small chapel” – and then the visions ceased for three weeks.

During further visions, on February 11, 15 and 20, the Lady declared that she has “come to relieve suffering” and asked Mariette to “pray hard.” The Lady’s parting words, on 2 March, were: “I am the Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Pray much.” The Virgin then laid her hands on her and said Adieu.

In May 1942, Bishop Kerkhofs of the Diocese of Liège provisionally recognised that the apparitions were genuine, and the Vatican added its seal of approval in 1947. Mariette Beco lived until 2 December 2011, dying at the age of 90. Three years earlier, at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the visions, she released a statement saying: “I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail. Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

If you wish to travel to Banneux, you can consult the shrine’s official website. It is a two-hour journey from Brussels; you can travel as far as Liège by rail, but must then take a bus to Banneux. On my pilgrimage, not knowing where to disembark, I waited until the road signs indicated that we had entered Banneux, and stopped the bus as soon as I saw a church on the roadside. It looked like the Banneux shrine had a very small complex – but in fact what I had seen was a row of pilgrim hostels and houses of prayer.

Virgin of the Poor ResidenceBanneux House of Prayer (3)Pictured right, is the first building I saw – the chapel of the first hostel. Just along the road from it, and pictured left, is the House of Prayer of the Maranatha Community. In between the two is a nursing home named for “the Virgin of the Poor.”

I stopped for a while to pray in the chapel of the House of Prayer, and then walked around the other buildings until it became clear that this was not the main shrine complex. On the wall outside one of the buildings, a small memorial commemorated Albert van den Berg, who gave his life protecting Jews and Christians during the Nazi occupation. Note the statues within the grounds as well as the plaques on the wall!

Albert van den Berg at Banneux

I walked on, following the bus route, and after five minutes entered a more built-up part of Banneux with hotels, bars and shops selling religious goods. Beyond the commercial street I discovered the protected sanctuary area.

Banneux Apparition Site (1)The first chapel at Banneux (pictured, right) was built within months of the apparitions. Today the sites of the first apparition and the spring are protected within an extensive woodland sanctuary, which allows pilgrims to walk around the grounds prayerfully and where several indoor and outdoor arenas are available for Mass; one arena is directly behind the spring.

Statues of Our Lady of Banneux could easily be confused with the well-known depiction of Our Lady of Lourdes.Statue of Our Lady of Banneux St Bernadette and Mariette Beco both saw Our Lady with a blue sash, and a golden rose on at least one foot – but at Lourdes, both feet were visible, whereas Mariette only saw Mary’s right foot. So if a statue looks like Our Lady of Lourdes, but has the left foot hidden and is not crowned with the words “I am the Immaculate Conception” then look again – it may in fact be a depiction of Our Lady as she revealed herself at Banneux.

As with Lourdes, so the focus at Banneux is on prayer for healing, a place of pilgrimage for the sick of all nations. Within the grounds, a building called the ‘Chapel of the Nations’ has been made available for Orthodox Christian worship and is richly decorated with icons.

The Chapel of the Nations

The Chapel of the Nations

Our Lady of Banneux - White Marble (1)

Our Lady of Banneux - Blessing (4)

There are many depictions of Our Lady of Banneux within the shrine grounds. The statue, left, is the standard image, rendered in white stone. The design on the right is rather different – it reminds us that twice during the series of apparitions, Our Lady laid her hands on Mariette’s head and then blessed her with the sign of the Cross. There is also a statue of Our Lady of Banneux in the Cathedral at Liège.

Our Lady’s clear intention at Banneux was that people from the nations should come there to pray for healing. Near the exit from the shrine grounds are two large noticeboards filled with votive plaques from grateful people acknowledging answers to prayer. The dates on the plaques seem to run from 2000 to 2006, though they are not all in order. With 220 plaques on each board, this works out at more than one answered and acknowledged prayer per week!

Thanksgivings in Banneux 2000-2006 (2)

If Beauraing was the Fatima of Belgium, then Banneux is certainly its Lourdes. The only message of the shrine is the explicit call to pray and the implicit invitation for the nations to come in search of healing. Indeed, the hiatus after Mariette’s first four visions ended with the fifth vision on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. Since the Lourdes of Belgium is closer, less busy, and in a country more accommodating of speaking English than the Lourdes of France, perhaps we in Wales should take our sick there on pilgrimage, finding our place among the “invitation to the nations”!

Why would God permit the Blessed Mother to echo both Fatima and Lourdes in Belgium within the space of three months? Why was no other European nation so favoured in the 20th century? To these questions we have no easy answer, save that “God will do whatever God chooses to do.” It is for God, and his servants, to invite us to the wells of grace, and on our part, we are called to make a humble response. The events of Beauraing and Banneux will soon pass out of living memory, but the shrines remain, a living link to the past, to the Lord, and to the graces God continues to bestow on his faithful people through the prayers of the Blessed Mother.

Shrines of Belgium: Beauraing

Last year, I visited the shrine of Pellevoisin in France. Because the Eurostar Train was severely delayed, I was given a free ticket in compensation – but the condition was that I had to book a journey to Paris, Lille or Brussels within one year. So I decided to spend a few days in Brussels and visit some of the shrines of Belgium. On 5 March 2013, I took the train to Beauraing.

Pilgrimages are seldom straightforward and this one was no exception – I nearly found myself in the wrong half of a train that was splitting, and then there was a long wait for a rail-replacement bus from Jambes to Dinant. This meant that a connection was missed, but since the delay was long enough for a lunch stop, it was not wasted time! I finally made it to Beauraing at 3 p.m.!

80 years ago, Our Lady appeared in Belgium. Not once, but twice – and both occasions have the rare distinction of being recognised as genuine apparitions by the Vatican.

The first series of apparitions took place in the town of Beauraing, which at that time was already large enough to have its own railway connection. From 29 November 1932 until 3 January 1933, the Mother of God showed herself on 33 occasions to a group of 5 children, aged between 9 and 15. (The youngest, Gilberte Degeimbre, was still alive in March 2013.)

Beauraing Apparition Site (9)

On the first day of the apparitions, the visionaries saw Our Lady in the air, as if walking along the railway line; on the third day, she changed position and in all the subsequent appearances she appeared close to a hawthorn tree in a garden below the viaduct. The photo, right, shows the railway viaduct in the background and a statue marking the place of apparitions close to the tree.

The visionaries said that the lady was dressed in a long white dress with a faint blue hue, her head covered with a long veil down to her shoulders. A ‘crown’ was formed by thin rays of light around Mary’s head; usually Mary’s hands would be joined together and she was smiling.

Although there were 33 apparitions, very few resulted in messages passed on by the children. They said that the Blessed Virgin asked them to “be good”, and on December 17th, Mary asked for “a Chapel”, six days later explaining she had appeared in Beauraing “so people come here on pilgrimage.

Beauraing PlaqueOn December 21st, when the children asked her to tell us her identity, she said: “I am the Immaculate Virgin.” From 29 December, as a sign of farewell, the children saw her heart, golden and shining, between her outstretched arms; for this reason Our Lady of Beauraing is also known as the “Virgin with the Golden Heart”; the plaque in French, left, declares that it was here, at this hawthorn tree, that the Virgin Mary manifested her Immaculate Heart.

During the final days of apparitions, Mary asked that those heeding her words should “Pray, pray much…” and “pray always.” On the very last day, 3 January 1933, she identified herself as the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven; she promised “I will convert sinners” and asked the children, if they love Jesus and herself, to “sacrifice yourselves for me.

Beauraing Apparition Site (7)The authenticity of the events was recognised by Mgr Charue, Bishop of Namur, on 2 July 1949, with the full knowledge and approval of the Vatican.

At Beauraing today, the place of apparitions has been developed as a compact campus for prayer. The statue at the hawthorn tree forms an intimate corner for prayer where the faithful can leave candles burning, but has also become the corner of an open-air chapel with covered altar.

Alongside this prayer space is a crypt, where a distinctive crucifix portrays the apparition with the five visionaries: Andrée and Gilberte Degeimbre and Fernande, Gilberte and Albert Voisin.

Crucifix in the Crypt at Beauraing

Crucifix in the Crypt at Beauraing

Beyond this prayer space another building (pictured below) serves as both an enclosed Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and as a covered altar for a second open-air Mass arena. Above the banked steps a two-tier building provides two enclosed chapels in case of inclement weather. Across the road, there is even an enclosed picnic room, as well as a small museum with personal possessions of some of the visionaries, and depictions of ways that various artists tried to render the children’s description of Our Lady into two- or three-dimensional artworks.

Beauraing Central Chapel (3)

The message of Beauraing is very simple; in its focus on prayer and sacrifice, and in its manifestation of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Heart, it echoes the revelations given at Fatima. Children are taught that making voluntary acts of sacrifice is something precious in God’s eyes, and that God will honour that sacrifice by granting to some sinners the grace of conversion. Although Our Lady explicitly states that “I will convert sinners”, we understand that this can only happen by her prayerful partnership with her Son.

Our Lady of Beauraing asked that people go there on pilgrimage. If you wish to do so, you can consult the shrine’s official website; Beauraing is a three-hour journey from Brussels by rail, rail-replacement buses permitting!

Two days later I visited the second site graced by Our Lady in Belgium – Banneux.