As I sit here writing the foreword for the autumn issue of the Parish Magazine, I have just returned from the parish pilgrimage to Lourdes. The first time I visited Lourdes was in 1978 and since then I have returned many times, perhaps as many as twenty. My earlier visits to Lourdes had a lasting effect on my vocation to the priesthood and continue to be a source of strength to me even when Iï¿½m not there. Over the years, to my mind at least, the sites of Lourdes have changed very little since my first visit. The grotto itself, the basilicas, the crowned virgin, the high stations, the baths, the permanent rows of burning candles near the grotto, the water taps, the chï¿½teau fort de Lourdes, the funicular with its spectacular view of the town, the myriads of shops and cafï¿½s and the strategically placed beggars all remain.
Of course there have been changes in Lourdes but the fundamentals are still basically the same both in its outward appearance, in its message of prayer and penance, in its care for the sick and as a place of healing. There is something reassuring to me about the consistency and permanence of a place that holds a special place in my heart. I guess deep down Iï¿½m really talking about the reassuring presence of God within us wherever we may be, rather than a particular place however much that place heightens the sense of Godï¿½s presence.
Reflecting on my recent visit it struck me that it was not Lourdes that has changed over the last 37 years but me. I had gone there as a young fresh faced teenager; later I had gone there as an enthusiastic lay brancardier with the sick. I went there as a ï¿½holyï¿½ seminarian and returned as a newly ordained priest looking the business in my new black suit. Since then I have gone there as an assistant priest, seminary teacher and parish priest and please God I will return again. Looking back, whilst Lourdes hasnï¿½t changed much there have been many changes in my life over the years; new experiences, new challenges, growing older, wiser (and wider) and watching those closest to me growing older too with the inevitable upset and difficulties that brings. ï¿½Thatï¿½s lifeï¿½ as they say.
Iï¿½ve never approached change comfortably or without difficulty. Other people, circumstances and events have often ï¿½nudgedï¿½ me to face change and, thank God, supported me to accept it and eventually to embrace it. In the end Iï¿½ve been blessed that the changes, not without their worries and anxieties, have so far enriched my life as a human being and a priest. Looking back Iï¿½ve accepted that change is hard for me, perhaps it is for us all, but also looking back I can see now, and begin to admit, that change can be good for us too and may help us to grow and develop as rounded people.
Our own Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, 'In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often'. (Development of Christian Doctrine). For the sometimes fearful and reluctant, which would include me, I would still wish to add to this, the plea of Henry Francis Lyte who prayed, ï¿½O thou who changest not, abide with meï¿½. Perhaps God is the only stability and consistency we really need.
At the moment Iï¿½m reminded that our schools are re-opening after the summer break. Change and new beginnings are in the air as summer begins to give way to autumn. For some of our very young children, they will have just started at school. Itï¿½s not always an easy time for them and I hope with the help and care of their mums and dads, brothers and sisters, grandmas and grandads and their teachers, they are managing the change well and will soon settle in. Many of our young adults have moved to new schools and find themselves no longer ï¿½topï¿½ of the school but feeling rather small and at the ï¿½bottomï¿½ once more. They too will need encouragement. Many of our older teenagers, who have now left school, are moving onto further education or into jobs. This is a big change for them, perhaps more than they know, which brings with it a greater freedom of choice, the inevitable successes and mistakes that will follow, and the challenge to make their own way in the world (even if watched over from a caring distance by their family). Keep praying for them.
There may be many changes and choices that have to be made through life. Some we make ourselves, some are made for us. Some changes are easy to accept, others are not. It has always to be our hope, and please God sometimes our experience, that God is always in them somewhere.
ï¿½God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.ï¿½
May God be with you!