Recently I had the privilege of speaking with a Polish priest who has lived in the United States for decades. Besides his duties at a very busy Marian shrine on the East Coast, he visits a nearby nursing home on a regular basis, bringing the sacraments to the faithful who persevere in the sunset years of their lives.
Love Among the Ruins
He spoke of them with great affection, especially the elderly women who suffer the inevitable deterioration as the years pass. I asked if these women mention the difficulty of facing their physical infirmities and loss of the outward beauty they may have had. He looked at me astonished.
“You know, every one of those women has in her room a picture of herself on her wedding day. I don’t think they see that much of a change. That’s still how they see themselves.”
It very well may be true. Who are we really? Although the shell may be transformed by age, the same person is growing within, absorbing the wisdom of the years. What husband or wife in a long-standing marriage doesn’t see in his spouse the fresh-faced youth with whom he embarked on that incomparable journey so long ago? It is easy to overlook the changing façade when you know that beneath it all is that beautiful soul who attracted you long ago, even as you hardly knew all the possibilities. The experiences over the years only added depth to the romantic hopes that were part of the initial foundation.
Seeing the Spotless Reality
With our understanding of the nuptial meaning of the priesthood, we must include priests in this reflection on how a man views his spouse. In his youthful zeal, a young man may see the beauty of the Church and imagine heroic ways of loving and serving her, only to realize that on the morning after his ordination, he is the same man with the same qualities and defects as before, only he — like the newlyweds — now embarks on a life with new sacramental graces. Just as each marriage has a unique charism, his priesthood and the flock he serves will have its own dynamic and there will be good times and bad, rich moments and struggles, and varying degrees of health. God’s will be done.
Interestingly, the image of the bride is similar to that of the women in the nursing home. No matter what human form the particular church takes, the reality is that of a spotless bride full of supernatural potential. However the priest and his people grow in love or fail to give of themselves, the graces are always there for new life and healing. Setting apart the infallibility of Holy Mother Church herself, the local or particular churches are subject to the defects of their members and the mis-steps of any couple. The eschatological reality of marriage will never be diminished by those who, in living it, fall short, and so it is with the Church as perfect Bride and with Christ, her devoted Lover, Who gave His life for her.
All of this came to mind as the Holy Father visited Lourdes this month in honor of the 150th anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. John Paul II, aged and frail, made his way to the shrine with his prayer intentions like any pilgrim. Whereas most visit Lourdes with a request for healing, he was no different, though it was clear that he didn’t ask for supernatural help with his own infirmities. The only reference to his suffering was one of solidarity with the many to whom discomfort is a constant companion. He reminded them of its value as he said, “With you I share a time marked by physical suffering, yet not for that reason any less fruitful in God's wondrous plan.”
His intentions were presented to the Virgin in his moments of silent prayer in front of the grotto. True to his vocation as spouse and father, he carried the needs of his family to this hallowed spot where Mary gently — in her given name — reminded the world of the gift God gave His people in her. John Paul II prayed for his Bride, the Church, and for the needs of his spiritual children scattered everywhere around the globe.
Turning to Mary
Mary — the Immaculata — is inextricably linked with the image of bride, being the first fruit of the Church and its most perfect image. Conceived without sin, assumed to heaven because of her perfect humility, Mary shows all of mankind what could have been had we not turned our backs on our Creator. Spouse of the Holy Spirit, she knows motherhood physically and spiritually in all its perfection and stands waiting to hear the prayers of her children. She invited pilgrims to Lourdes by her “stopping in” years ago, pulling back the veil of heaven with her miraculous spring and her conversation with little Bernadette. “Forbid not the children from coming to me, for of such is the Kingdom of God.”
The aged Father now visits Lourdes with his intentions — that Mary would appeal to God to shower more graces in this challenging age, so that the pope’s visible Bride, the mother of his children, would rally and counter her own infirmities and setbacks. He knows his children’s struggles and confusion and, with his diminished strength, reminds them where to go for all their needs. In fact, throughout his papacy, he has never relied on his own strength or cleverness, but only been faithful to the task placed before him. Now, more than ever, uniting his suffering to that of Christ, he reminds his flock to turn to Mary.
To Mary he brought his heartfelt wish: “I shall always carry in my heart the gratitude and the pleas of the entire Church, if not of the entire world, whose peace and salvation cannot come but from God.” The youthful zeal is no less ardent, though the years have shown him how sin besets love when God is absent. His love for the Bride is deeper than on his ordination day, since the years they have weathered in spousal union have allowed him to express it with every fiber of his being. Though illusions may have faded over the years, he still sees the Church as that Woman clothed in the sun — radiant, spotless, and humble. In this way it calls to mind the women in white, who look down from the nursing home walls, those brides who held such promise and gave all they were capable of giving. The pope’s Bride has been that and so much more. Among all women, she is blessed, and he wants his children to know that. What husband wouldn’t?