Visiting Lourdes with faithful from his diocese last week, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz related a personal story about his deteriorating eyesight. The 73-year-old bishop, the most senior of the active bishops in the Netherlands, has been suffering from an increasing loss of his sight for a while now. And, as he puts it, “it will not get better”.
Perhaps Lourdes was the perfect place to share such a personal experience of a physical ailment. Here, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, thousands of pilgrims come every year to seek healing from what ails them, and the diocesan pilgrimage led by Bishop Wiertz (together with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, recently retired from ‘s-Hertogenbosch) was no different.
Bishop Wiertz gives no indication that it prevents him from doing his duties as bishop. As he explains, it forces him to focus more on listening instead of watching, and each word he reads requires more time, so perhaps he has to take things a little bit slower. But he has an auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Everard de Jong, at his side to lead the Diocese of Roermond with its 1 million faithful. For now, we need not expect yet another round of bishop appointments.
The full text of Bishop Wiertz’s homily follows below:
“You may have noticed this week that I always read my text with a little light. That is because I can no longer see very well. I will turn 74 this year and even bishops are not safe from all sort of old age ailments. But you need not feel sorry for me: I am in good health for my age. Except for those eyes. Sight is failing. And it will not get better.
A while ago this bothered me, as I have to read, and read out, much. And in my free time I like to read books: novels, history, theology. I manage with those lights, but I’m not as fast as I used to be. That is no disaster, but it is a nuisance. Until I discovered something a few months ago. Since I have to read more slowly, I also read with more attention. Every word becomes clearer, so to speak. It sticks more and I reflect on its meaning more.
Walking around here in Lourdes, I wonder if this eye problem does not also have a deeper meaning. I may see a little less, but I also got something in return. A more intense awareness of the meaning of words. And in conversation listening becomes more important than looking.
God lets us have new experiences before we realise it ourselves. I do not mean to say that all illnesses or physical defects are a good thing. Not at all. Over the course of the years I have spoken to more than enough people who really suffer. My ailment is like nothing in comparison. But I have also learned from these sick and handicapped people – here in Lourdes, but also in the parishes where I have worked – that there is only one way to overcome suffering: by going through it. And at the same time look for support with God.
Luckily, nowadays doctors can do a lot to cure people are make physical suffering more bearable. But the best way to learn and accept your situation is through prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray,” we heard in the first reading. It doesn’t make you better in the literal sense of the word, but it can help you feel better.
God heals in a different way. He helps you discover things in your illness of handicap, things you weren’t aware of before. Call them small miracles who help you every day to handle life.
Many people know Lourdes because of the great miracles. But in all the years that I have been coming here I have never seen those. I did witness many small miracles. People who can handle things again after a pilgrimage. People who find out, here in Lourdes, that they can still do a lot of things themselves. Like me with my more intense readings and more intensive listening. A small miracle. It is nothing compared to the miracle Jesus performs for the royal official in the Gospel. His son lives again even before he realises it himself. And why? What did he do? Nothing more than taking Jesus’ word for it. We can have faith in Jesus, that all that we experience in our lives has meaning. Even when we do not see it ourselves.
That is why we can look for the small positive things that cheer us up. Small things which help us through the day, who make us able able to handle things for a while. The smile of someone we know. A kind word. The good care of volunteers. The fact that we are making such a beautiful trip together. These are small miracles that God gives us. Winks from heaven, which He uses to show us that He thinks of us and grants everyone healing in His very own way.
You will shortly recieve the laying on of hands. You may experience that as a sign that God is with you, that He gives you strength and helps you. Perhaps in a way that you haven’t thought of yourself. Let us always be open to God, who walks His own paths in healing, but never leaves us.
Photo credit: Organisatie Limburgse Bedevaarten