St. Maximilian Kolbe cultivated a particular devotion to Our Lady under the title of the “Immaculate Conception.” He launched the “Knights of the Immaculata,” and Marian feasts were important to him, and none more so than Dec. 8. But he also noted the significance of Feb. 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The Blessed Mother first appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto of Lourdes on Feb. 11, 1858. During that series of apparitions, Mary eventually identified herself under the title under which Pope Pius IX had defined her four years earlier: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This belief is supported by Tradition, but non-Catholic Christians will undoubtedly ask why Tradition matters. Tradition from its earliest honored Mary as sinless and perpetually virgin, something many Protestants might concede. But why look at Tradition?
Catholics are sometimes accused of seeking “special” or “private” revelations, as if the “solid word of God in the Holy Bible” were not enough. Catholics know those charges are untrue: The truth is rarely “either/or.” Yes, the Bible provides the fundamental and foundational revelation that all people need to be saved, but the Catholic faith has always affirmed Scripture and Tradition go hand in hand.
Why? For the basic reason that life is complex and reality richer than an “either/or.” The Bible itself is the product of Tradition: the Tradition of the early Church. When Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to descend on the disciples, they did not all run into different corners of the Cenacle and start writing. They rushed out of the Upper Room and started preaching. And they kept doing that, going and teaching all nations. Only later in their lives did they begin to write that message down.
This was wholly in keeping with the times. Written communication as the primary and dominant form of communication is a few centuries old. For most of human history, when most people were illiterate, books were hand-copied and writing materials costly, oral communication prevailed.
So people knew what their tradition was, and they could even measure what was written — including the Bible — against that tradition. That’s why early Christians knew that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John belonged in the Bible, but the “gospels” of Thomas, Judas, James and Nicodemus were apocryphal. The Church, based on her Tradition, determined that. As the apologist Gerard Verschuuren notes, while the books of the Bible may be inspired, God never sent down an inspired table of contents.
So Catholic Tradition from its earliest form honored Mary, recognizing both her perpetual virginity and her sinlessness.
Marian theology today focuses on what Mary reveals to us about what being a disciple of Jesus implies.
In a 1926 article about the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Kolbe captures what is really important about this feast. He notes that Mary identifies herself at Lourdes as “the Immaculate Conception,” but he also notes her central message: “Penance! Penance! Penance!”
First, those two facts point out the central meaning of this feast for us: We were not meant to be sinners. Sin was not supposed to be part of our nature. We are not human because we sin; we are less human because we sin.
Mary, the “Immaculate Conception,” shows us what a real human being should have been and what is possible with God’s grace.
Second, Mary’s message at Lourdes is not a “new” message. In fact, it is the central message of the Gospels: the call to conversion. The very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark, which some regard as the oldest Gospel, is “Repent!” Jesus’ public ministry begins with his association with John the Baptist, who is preaching a message of repentance. So Mary is simply telling us what her Son did.
Third, Mary’s message clarifies that call. It’s not just “repent,” but “penance.” Yes, it’s true that the lion’s share of healing from sin is God’s work, but man must respond. The Russian orthodox writer Theophan the Recluse put it well: God is like an alarm clock. The alarm clock rings, but you have to get out of bed.
“Penance! Penance! Penance!” It’s not just a moment in time and a word we say (though, in a pinch before eternity, that may have to suffice). It is ordinarily a way of life that we want to embrace and make our own, “working out our salvation” together with the grace of God.
Fourth, Kolbe gives us the alternative. “‘Pleasure! Pleasure! Pleasure!’ cries the world.” Pleasure, not penance, is what people want. Bread and circuses! Consider that much of Western thinking — including secular ethical thinking — is profoundly influenced by the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill. Bentham thought we should choose based on what brings more pleasure/less pain, while Mill was more astringent, suggesting choice based on a calculus of what produced more good than evil (as if a finite human being could ever know that). Basically, Bentham saw human beings as Pavlovian dogs, salivating at pleasure and recoiling from pain. So what maximizes the former and minimizes the latter? There’s your “bad” and “good.” Morality is reduced from an act of reason and will to acts of feelings, sensate pleasure and emotion: “I feel that this is right!” “How can it be so wrong when it feels so right?” asked Barbara Mandrell (and the devil long before her).
Fifth (although Kolbe does not mention this) is the nexus between sin, suffering and death. The insight of Genesis is that suffering and death are not “natural” parts of human life, but consequences of the disorder introduced by man into himself, his world and his relationships (with his fellow man and God) because of sin. “God did not make death,” the Wisdom writer reminds us. Sin and suffering come from “pleasure, pleasure, pleasure” divorced from “truth, goodness and beauty.” And when man cuts himself off from the latter three, what else can he expect but sickness, suffering and — eventually — death?
It’s not, then, by accident that the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes has become the World Day of the Sick, just as it was no accident that the site of the Lourdes apparitions has been a place of miraculous healing. God’s message is not vain: “I came that they may have life and have it to the full.” As Bernard Häring rightly observed: The whole Christian message, including the call to conversion, is essentially one of healing (if we want to be healed). Lourdes has become a place of pilgrimage for the sick because Our Lord and Our Lady offer us life to the full.