Raised up by Obedience and Sacrifice

Homily at the daily English language Mass at Fatima

Wives, obey your husbands!

It would be hard to find a more controversial passage in the Bible than the one we’ve just heard. And yet it comes from one of the Letters in the New Testament which we believe are inspired by the Holy Spirit… we acclaimed it as ‘The Word of the Lord’ and said ‘thanks be to God!’

What is God really saying to us today? Let’s put aside any strong feelings stirred up by this challenge, and look deeply into the Scriptures.

‘Wives should obey their husbands as much as the Church obeys Christ.’

Ah… maybe that’s less of challenge that it first seems. How does the Church obey Christ? Badly!

The Church on earth is made entirely of sinners! We are the dough, into which a woman has thrown yeast, to raise us up to holiness! That wise woman represents Mother Church, who ‘raises’ us with her sacraments. Baptism takes the fallen children of Adam and makes of us adopted sons and daughters of God! The Sacrament of Reconciliation raises us up when we fall into sin – if you haven’t yet been to confession during your time in Fatima, I urge you to go! The Eucharist is the life for our souls, and Holy Communion itself has the power to forgive our smaller sins.

That woman also represents the Blessed Mother, who comes to raise us up with her gifts. She offers us the daily rosary, in which we store up prayers for our own hour of death. She offers us the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, by which we can plead for the salvation of sinners. She offers us her sorrowful and immaculate heart, which we can console by meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, especially on the First Saturday of each month. These are requests, not divine commands which we would sin to disobey – but because we’re here in Fatima, our hearts already sense that this is what our Blessed Mother is asking of us.

But back to St Paul’s letter! Wives are only to imitate the Church, though ideally this means they should ‘submit to their husbands in everything’. Does this mean their husbands can lord it over them? No, husbands are challenged to ‘be the Lord’ for them – imitating the Lord Jesus who sacrificed himself and gave up his very life for the sake of the one he loved!

By entering holy matrimony, a Christian husband and a Christian wife freely choose not only to found a family, but to play out a sacred drama, a life-long sacrament, where the husband must be an image of Christ who died for our sins, and the wife an image of the Church who nurtures all the faithful. There will times a wife must obey her husband, for the common good; there will be times the husband must sacrifice his desire to get his own way for the sake of his wife. No human being can play these roles to perfection; but Jesus does not ask us to achieve perfection. No, he asks for our good will to do what we can, with his help, and the humility to repent and try again when we fail.

By baptism, we all, men and women, married and single, become members of the Body of Christ. We all share in the work of Christ the High Priest. Indeed, there is no action more priestly, for a lay person, than to pray the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, and to offer the prayer taught by the Angel of Fatima, asking pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not trust and do not love our God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We may feel that our efforts are puny, that our failures are greater than our faithfulness. But every moment we live the values to which Christ has called us, is a mustard seed moment. If you do what you can, Christ will do what Christ can, and though what you can do may be as small as a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, it is enough. Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

Save Us From the Fires of Hell

Homily at Christ the King for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

“Pray and make sacrifices, because so many souls go to Hell…”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St Jacinta Martos and her cousin, Lucia dos Santos.

One hundred years ago this weekend, these children, with Jacinta’s brother, St Francisco, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary while they were tending sheep outside the village of Fatima, in Portugal. It was to be the first of six visions spread over six months. In the course of those visions, Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of Hell and promised to take them to Heaven. She warned that many souls were in danger of going to Hell because they were not leading the right kind of life. She asked the children to offer up sacrifices so that God would give to those souls the grace of conversion – enough grace to carry them all the way to Heaven.Grey statutes of the Fatima children, Jacinta (seated) and Francisco (standing_

The Gospel we’ve heard today is very familiar – it’s the one most commonly chosen for Catholic funerals. There’s a very positive message: Jesus has prepared a room in heaven for each person on earth. But that doesn’t guarantee that every soul will arrive in the place prepared for them. We never claim the soul of any person, other than an infant, goes directly to heaven until that person has been canonised – so we rejoice that the Church has canonised St Jacinta and St Francisco this weekend. At a funeral, we presume the soul is on the way to heaven, but may benefit from our prayers to help the soul pass through Purgatory more swiftly. The message of Fatima challenges us to pray another kind of prayer, a prayer which saves souls alive on earth today from going to Hell.

There are deep mysteries here. First of all, why does God need us to pray for sinners to be converted? Why doesn’t God just convert them?

Last weekend we marked Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to remember that Jesus called us to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest. The “labourers” can mean priests, but can also mean any Christian souls willing to invite other people to become members of the Church.

God has so much respect for us, as members of the body of Christ, that He invites us to be part of His great plan – His plan for more shepherds, and His plan for the sheep.

The second mystery is whether it can really be true that souls are in so much danger of going to Hell? Didn’t Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he had gone ahead of us to prepare the way to Heaven? Indeed he did – and he explained to St Thomas that the way to get there is to follow him!

Among people who are not church members, many today believe that this life on earth is all we’ve got, so we should make the most of it while we still can. We have a message for them – God has so much more in store!

Within the church, we have a bigger problem. Two whole generations of Catholics have grown up with the impression that God is a kindly grandpa who looks the other way when we choose to sin, and throws open the gates of heaven when we die. That’s false! That’s cherry-picking some bits of the Gospels. Yes, the Father of the prodigal son ran to meet him, but not until the son had come to his senses and resolved to go and apologise to his father!

Third, why does God need our sufferings? Today’s Scripture says we are a holy priesthood offering sacrifices to God, and that by doing so we build up God’s house. The greatest sacrifice of all was Jesus dying on the Cross – but because baptism makes us members of Christ’s body, we can offer own little sacrifices as our contribution to this work. This is the priestly work that ALL members of the church are called to undertake.

How do we do this? The children of Fatima were taught a prayer that they could say whenever they voluntarily accepted any hardship, rather than choosing to complain: “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of you and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Daily life will send us plenty of material for sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride to let well-meaning people help us. Sometimes we have to go the extra mile to do a favour which is not onerous but certainly inconvenient, helping a family member, friend, or stranger. Sometimes, life sends us physical aches and pains – these too can be material for sacrifice rather than complaint

Each of the three children of Fatima had a different calling. Lucia is not yet canonized. She lived until 2005, and her case is still being investigated: she remained on earth as a witness. Her two cousins both died in the Spanish ‘Flu which swept Europe before 1920. Our Lady said that she would take Jacinta to Heaven – and Francisco, who saw the vision but did not hear the words – would go to Heaven too, but first he would have to pray “many rosaries”!

So, my dear friends in Christ, let us not take Heaven for granted. We rejoice today that Jesus has opened the way – but to get there we must follow Him, and for others to get there, they must follow Him too. Let us not forget to pray that many people will indeed choose to start following Jesus on earth, and so find the way to their home in heaven. If we add daily sacrifices to our prayer, we will be doing something most pleasing to Our Lady – but we will only find out what great fruit our prayers bring when we reach that heavenly home prepared for us.

St Jacinta – pray for us!

St Francisco – pray for us!

Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

First Communion

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Children, this is a very special weekend, one I hope you will remember for the rest of your life. It is special for two reasons. First, because it is the weekend when you will make your First Holy Communion. But secondly – and you might have seen this in the news already – because it is the weekend Pope Francis declared two children to be saints.

Those children were Francisco, aged 8, and Jacinta, aged 7, when 100 years ago this weekend they saw the Virgin Mary for the first time. She appeared five more times to them that year. But this wasn’t the first time something amazing happened to them. The previous year, they had three visions of an angel – and the third time, the angel gave them Holy Communion – it was their First Holy Communion, given to them from Heaven!Grey statue of an angel holding a Host and Chalice

The angel explained that there were lots of people in the world who didn’t believe in Jesus or were even rude to Jesus, and this makes God very sad. There are many people who don’t treat each other with respect and kindness too, and this also offends Jesus, because Jesus lives, hidden, in every human being – including those we are rude to. But there is something we can do to make up for this.

When we come into the presence of Jesus’ body and blood – and remember, every Catholic Church has a tabernacle where we keep Jesus’ body – we can say a special prayer. We can say: “Jesus, I love you, and I am so sorry for the people who ignore you or are rude to you.”

But wouldn’t it be so much better if the people who were rude to Jesus, or don’t care about Him, started caring and loving Him? The angel asked the children to pray for this to happen – we call this conversion. The angel taught them another prayer: “Heavenly Father! Jesus is holy, remember how much he loves us! You kept our Mother Mary free of all sin, remember how much she loves us! Because of their love, convert many souls to love Jesus and Mary in return!”

Then, when the angel gave the children Holy Communion, he said: “Eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is so hurt by seeing how ungrateful people are. Say prayers to make up for them and show your love for God.”

Jacinta and Francisco took the angel’s message seriously. They looked for ways they could help other people, and when they gave away some of their time, or the things they owned, to help someone else, they said “Jesus, it is for love of you and Mary, so you can convert sinners.” But they didn’t live for very long.

In those days, we hadn’t invented the medicines we have today, and there was a terrible outbreak of ‘flu across Europe. By the year 1920, three years after Our Lady had appeared, both of the children had died. And yet, although neither of them lived long enough to become teenagers, this weekend Pope Francis has declared that they lived such holy lives we can call them saints. This means you are not too young to live as saints, too! But to be saints you must keep remembering to tell Jesus that you love him.

Now, a word to the grown-ups here today. Many of you have come to support these First Communion children – thank you for being with us. Maybe this story sounds very far-fetched to you. Even for Catholics, many of us will be thinking “Can it really be true that an angel appeared from heaven and gave Communion to these children? Can things like that really happen?”

During the last 200 years, there have been many claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared from Heaven. The Catholic Church has investigated these and found 15 of the cases to be worthy of belief. In those places, many people have experienced their prayers being answered in powerful ways; some have claimed miraculous healings. Lourdes and Fatima are the most famous places, but there are others. Even so, no Catholic is required to believe that these things really happened – it’s just that the Pope or the local Bishops think there’s really good evidence that the claims are true.

There is one thing all Catholics ARE required to believe, though. It’s that on Easter Sunday, two days after being nailed to a Cross, Jesus Christ walked through a locked door, without opening it, and showed himself to his friends. If that’s true, it makes the meal Jesus celebrated the night before he died, the Last Supper, the most significant dinner ever eaten on Earth. If it’s true, then the God of the Universe is inviting each of these children here today – and inviting all of you, too – to be fed by him every weekend in your nearest Catholic Church.

Receiving communion is a holy gift – this is why our children have to prepare by making their First Confession. This is why we don’t offer every guest Holy Communion; to receive God’s gift of love we must first sort out our lifestyle, and make sure we are trying to live the way Jesus asked us. That includes being in obedience to the Pope, which is why we don’t offer communion to Christians from Protestant churches – and also includes being married if we are in a partnership. Why are we so protective of Holy Communion? It’s because even when it comes at the hands of priest rather than an angel, we still believe it is God’s gift from Heaven. But if something in your heart is stirred by what you have heard today, maybe God is inviting you to become a Catholic – for 100 years now, those who believe in the message of Fatima have been praying for you!

So children, I’m going to stop preaching now so we can move to our prayers and ask Jesus to become present on this altar. But because of what the Pope has done this weekend, we can make a little bit of history. We can do something we’ve never done in St Philip Evans Church before this weekend. There’s a Catholic rule that says when someone is declared ‘Blessed’ you can only ask for their help in a public church service in their own country, but once they are declared to be a ‘Saint’, you can call upon them at Mass in any church in the world. So on this weekend of firsts, join me in our responses:

St Jacinta – pray for us!
St Francisco – pray for us!
Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Call Your Mother

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013.

Do you remember those BT telephone adverts where Maureen Lipman played a Jewish mother? In the most famous one, she was delighted her grandson had got an “ology” – that made him a scientist! In another advert, she was griping to the world in general that her son never got round to picking up the phone and calling her… until he did; and then she griped that he never visited!

When we hear reports of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in various places around the world, we might be tempted to think that she is also the kind of Jewish mother who will never be satisfied. At Lourdes, it’s “Please come here on pilgrimage.” At Fatima, it’s “Please pray the rosary every day!” If there’s truth in some of the reports of places where the Church has not yet authenticated her coming, her message is “Please pray a great deal each day, and fast twice a week.” Why does our Blessed Mother need all this attention?

Today’s celebration is given so that we may understand who Mary really is. At the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was taken up into heaven. Her body was the Ark of the New Covenant, the vessel in which God’s presence, in the Person of Jesus, had entered our world. It was right and fitting that this holy Ark be taken up into God’s heavenly Temple.

This means that Mary is now, what each one of us shall be in the future – if only we stay faithful to God and become part of the new heaven and new earth which God has prepared for the end of time. (The Bible speaks of this as “perishable nature… putting on imperishability”.) Blessed Mary has no insecurities, no “need to be needed”. She already enjoys the nearness of God, who is love, and she can no longer be tempted to sin or self-doubt. Nothing that we do on earth can harm or injure her… except for those times when we injure ourselves through sin.

Because our Blessed Mother’s Heart is pure and immaculate, she loves the human race with a perfect love; so whenever human beings reject Blessed Mary, or Her Divine Son, we wound her heart with our hatred or indifference.

It was for this reason that Our Lady came in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, to invite us to pray the Rosary every day. When we pray the rosary, we offer dozens of Hail Marys, in which we invite Mary to pray for “us sinners” – that is, for ourselves, and all the sinners in the human race – and declare her “blessed among women”, fulfilling her great prophecy in the Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed”!

But at Fatima, Mary asked for something more – that we dedicate each decade of our rosaries as a prayer for the conversion and salvation of the human race. She invited us to pray, after each deacade, the words: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”

If Mary invites us to pray the rosary daily, it is not because she needs the affirmation, nor because the gates of heaven would be closed to us, who love Jesus, if we did not do so; rather, it is because she is inviting us to become part of her network of prayer, holding before God all the children which Our Lord placed under her care with his dying breath upon the Cross. This is our privilege; and when we do reach the gates of heaven, we will experience great joy for each and every rosary and invocation of Our Lady which we uttered during this earthly life.

I doubt that they make adverts in heaven, but I can just imagine Our Blessed Mother standing in the courtroom of heaven, speaking with Our Lord and the angels about her children on Earth. Of this I am sure; that she will not be complaining about the children who aren’t calling her, but will be pointing out all those who have faithfully prayed their rosaries and invoked her prayers. “For their sake, My Son, send your angels to protect the Earth, so that hearts may be converted and peace may be restored.”

To be a client of Mary, to be someone who invokes her prayers, is a great privilege which God offers to members of His family. That Mary keeps inviting us to join in this task means that its fruits, when done well, will be tremendous. So not for guilt, not for obligation, but as an act of pure love: Call your mother! She’s waiting to hear from you!

In pink lettering, on black, the words CALL YOUR MOTHER, a telephone and a rosary.

The Holy Spirit and Mary

A homily at St Illtyd’s, Llantwit Major, as part of the parish Pentecost Novena 2013.

In this evening’s portion from the Acts of the Apostles, we see a distinct before and after. At the start of the story, a group of disciples had not heard that there was such a thing as a “Holy Spirit”. But they experience an immediate transformation, and there is no doubt that these disciples have been filled by God’s Spirit because they are suddenly manifesting the gifts which the Holy Spirit brings. Based on this story alone, we might be tempted to say that receiving the Holy Spirit is a once-in-a-lifetime event that brings dramatic consequences. But in fact the work of the Spirit is much more subtle, and we have a perfect case study in Our Heavenly Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Our study begins on the first page of the Bible. We are told that God’s Spirit is hovering over the face of the waters on the day of Creation. Now in Latin, the word for sea is mare and its plural is maria – although Genesis was not originally written in Latin, we might wonder whether God wanted this to become a prophecy, in the Church’s official language, of the Holy Spirit hovering over Maria, mother of Jesu?

The teaching of our Church is that at the very first moment of her life, Mary was conceived immaculate. This was a great work of the Holy Spirit.

When the Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth, he addresses her as “Full of Grace” – already filled with all the graces God can give! The Greek word used, kecharitomene, is a deep word worthy of our meditation. And yet when Mary asks how it could be that she would conceive a child, the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her – a new work of grace is yet to come! See the work of the Spirit pictured in light in the work of Elizabeth Wang!

The pregnant virgin sets off to meet her cousin Elizabeth; and we are told that Elizabeth too was filled with the Holy Spirit, and her child leaped in her womb. This sets the scene for Mary to offer a great hymn of praise, her Magnificat. Mary declares that her soul praises God – this means her whole being – but also that her spirit rejoices. This means the spiritual part of her, her own human spirit in union with Holy Spirit, offers praise to God!

A firstborn Son has entered the world, and so thanks must be given in the Jerusalem Temple. There, Mary finds the Holy Spirit at work in the prophet Simeon, who speaks a disturbing word: Mary and her Son will be hated. Mary will suffer in the depths of her being, poetically prophesied as a “sword piercing her soul”. And the mystery deepens: BECAUSE of her suffering, “secret thoughts will be exposed”.

Mary, how can it be that you will suffer so that secrets should come to light?

I believe that the secret thoughts intended here are the thoughts of sinners who are converted, who in coming to Christ, name and shame their sins.

Over the last 200 years, this prophecy has unfolded through God’s continuing work of revelation, for those who have ears to hear.

Our first image comes from the Rue du Bac in Paris, in 1830. Mary shows herself to St Catherine Labouré as one who PRAYS for the world. She appears with rays of grace streaming from her hands. The light in which she is bathed is the Holy Spirit working within and through her. Mary’s message is that God has given her the role of obtaining grace from heaven for all her children, but that in order to receive these heavenly gifts, we must ask. One means of asking is to wear the medal revealed here by Mary, and praying daily the prayer inscribed on it: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!

The Medal of the Immaculate Conception, popularly known as the Miraculous Medal

Mary’s suffering is not prominent – yet on the reverse of this medal is her signature. The 12 stars point to the woman clothed with the sun, pursued by a dragon, in the Book of Revelation. The entwined M and cross recall the presence of Mary at the foot of cross in John’s Gospel. And the Heart of Mary appears alongside the Heart of Jesus – his bearing a crown of thorns, hers pierced by a sword. In this way, without undue attention, the prophecy of Simeon, and Mary’s role in the Gospel of Luke, is duly recalled.

For the first time, a private revelation has offered us the image of the suffering Heart of Mary. In Bible language, heart is the place of thinking, of pondering, of mental angst.

In St Catherine’s vision, the presence of the Heart of Mary was a minor feature; the focus of her message was on believers entrusting themselves to Mary’s prayers so they could obtain all the graces needed for spiritual maturity. But ten years later, in the same religious order, another sister was granted a revelation in which Mary’s suffering heart would take centre stage.

Front and reverse sides of the Green Scapular

In 1840, Sr Justine Bisqueyburu, in the very same chapel, experienced a vision of the Mother of God, clearly holding her own Immaculate Heart with her right hand; at its top were bright flames. Later that same year, Sr Justine saw Mary again, in the same way – but this time Mary’s left hand held out a patch of green cloth bearing an image of the same vision, and on the reverse, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, surmounted by a gold cross and with words in the shape of an oval around the heart: Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Sr Justine understood, as part of this revelation, that Our Lady wished the scapular to be promoted widely as an instrument in the conversion of souls. In this way, heaven itself explicitly linked prayer to the suffering heart of Mary, with the work of conversion.

Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, with prominent Immaculate HeartAnd so to Fatima, the title of Our Lady which we celebrate today, recalling the place where the Mother of God first appeared on this day in 1917. At Fatima also she showed her heart – not with a sword, but with a crown of thorns representing the sins of those who mock or insult the Blessed Mother.

On July 13, Our Lady appeared with a call for the conversion of sinners – this time requesting that we add this prayer intention to our rosary by a special prayer at the end of each decade: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us that the Christian life will not be free of suffering – “In the world you will find trouble.” In the same vision of 13 July 1917 , Mary taught us how to transform the sufferings which come our way into pious offerings: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The three visionary children of Fatima took Our Lady’s message to heart, and found simple, childlike ways to make these sacrifices, giving up their packed lunches or enduring the nettles and brambles of the Portuguese countryside. Soon, two of them would be taken to heaven when a great influenza epidemic swept across Europe. Sr Lucia was spared, entering a convent where in 1925 she received a further vision: an invitation, on the First Saturday of each month, to spend extra time in meditating on the mysteries of the rosary: an act of love for Mary in compensation for those who do not love her, or even deliberately insult her.

Beauraing Apparition - the Virgin with the Golden HeartHeaven’s gradual revealing of the Heart of Mary concluded in Belgium in 1933. At Beauraing, we were shown Our Lady’s heart of gold, pierced neither by sword nor thorns. Here Our Lady’s message was simple, and might be expressed in this way: Your heart can be like mine, burning with pure love, if you pray much and sacrifice yourself for sinners.

What, though, of the work of the Holy Spirit?

In 1929, Sr Lucia of Fatima received a final vision. Here she was explicitly shown the Dove representing the work and presence of the Holy Spirit, on the breast of God the Father. Together, Father, Son and Spirit offer the gift of salvation to the world. Because of the death of Jesus we receive MERCY – our sins are not to be punished – and Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, received the fullest gift of mercy imaginable.

The Last Vision of Fatima

This vision reminds us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wish to send us graces – the spiritual gifts which we need. The greatest grace is the gift of the Spirit himself! In this image, we see the Eucharist, flowing from the wounded side of Christ – but the light itself represents the work and presence of the Holy Spirit. Notice how Mary’s breast is filled with light, and the rays continue towards the visionary Sr Lucia kneeling before the altar. In all of the preceding visions, although we have not explicitly seen the Holy Spirit, we have seen the light which represents God’s gift of grace. Each ray of light is a grace, a gift borne on the wings of the Heavenly Dove.

Let us return, for a moment, to the Scriptures. We are given one final glimpse of Mary, in her earthly life, at the start of the Book of Acts, where she is gathered with the apostles in prayer, awaiting the day of Pentecost. Therefore we assume she was with the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, and with the Apostles, received the gift of the Holy Spirit anew.

Even Mary, full of grace, receives the Spirit in new ways at different times. Her Immaculate Conception. Her Annunciation. The inspiration which prompted her Magnificat. The Day of Pentecost. Mary is a sign to us that we do not receive the Holy Spirit once only. It is true that there may be moments in our life when the Spirit comes in a dramatic way to release something for the first time, as the disciples at Ephesus experienced. But the Spirit has many gifts, and some are bestowed in more subtle ways.

If you would approach God’s throne humbly, then do what the Blessed Mother asked of us through St Catherine Labouré: pray for the graces which God wishes to give you through the hands of Mary.

If you are feeling a little bolder, then come confidently before God and pray to have your capacity for grace increased!

Our Lady of the Taper, holding the child Jesus and a lit candleThe signs of the Holy Spirit are wind and flame. I wish to leave you with one final image – Our Lady of the Taper. You can see clearly that Mary is holding her Son – but the taper in the other hand represents the light of the Holy Spirit. More than that, a taper is the kind of candle meant for passing on a flame. See, Our Lady is offering us not only her Divine Son, but also the Holy Spirit!

Holy Mother of God, pray that we may receive, through your hands, the gifts of the Spirit which we do not even realise we need to ask for!

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.