If indeed there had been anything better and more beneficial to man’s salvation than suffering, Christ certainly would have shown it by word and example. For He manifestly exhorts both His disciples that followed Him, and all that desire to follow Him, to bear the cross, saying: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke ix, 23). So that when we have read and searched all, let this be the final conclusion, that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts xiv, 21).
(‘Imitation of Christ’ – Bk. II, ch. xii.)
The following text is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on February 6, 1965. It has been translated and adapted for publication.
At Lourdes, Divine Providence takes two different attitudes towards human suffering. The first is more sensational and thus catches our attention more. It is when Our Lady, as a compassionate mother, heals the sick and lame and thus proves the veracity of the Faith. This, in turn, shows her mercy for wayward souls, by giving them a strong motive to convert.
The innumerable pilgrims who are not cured exemplify the other attitude, and beg the questions: “Why would Our Lady cure one and not others?” and “Isn’t this in contradiction to the first attitude?”
The answers to these questions demonstrate suffering’s raison d’être and role within the perfection of the Divine plans. Thus, we can learn much more by this second attitude than by the first.
To reach a conclusion, we first must recognize that Our Lady demonstrates her goodness at Lourdes. She shows that she can and wants to work miracles for her children. Nevertheless, the vast majority of pilgrims return uncured.
Analyzing the matter, we conclude that suffering and spiritual trials are the very means of most souls’ sanctification. These are necessary, because most souls only develop detachment and love of God through suffering. Saint Francis de Sales expressed this well when he called suffering the “eighth sacrament.”
I was speaking one day with Cardinal Pedro Segura, Archbishop of Seville. He recounted a conversation he had with Pope Pius XI. The Holy Father was bragging that he had never been sick, when Cardinal Segura smiled and said: “Then Your Holiness is lacking the sign of the elect.”
The pope was startled and the cardinal continued: “All the predestined were sick or afflicted, and seriously so, for at least part of their lives. If Your Holiness has never been sick, it is a bad sign.”
Some days later, Pius XI had a massive heart attack. From his sick bed, the pope wrote a note to Cardinal Segura that read: “Your Eminence, now I have the sign of the elect.”
Truly, sickness and suffering of every order are signs of the elect. Our Lady realizes that suffering is indispensable for the salvation of souls. She would endanger their eternal destiny if she were to cure everyone who visited Lourdes.
Furthermore, she does something even greater for those whom she does not cure. She gives them such an acceptance of their condition that I have never heard of someone who returned from Lourdes, embittered because he was not cured.
Rather, the uncured return with a great resignation and are utterly satisfied with their trip. Many arrive and, seeing others more needy than themselves, ask Our Lady to cure these unfortunate ones rather than themselves – and often their prayers are answered.
Bear in mind, these are not people with minor illnesses. No one travels to Lourdes because of a cold. Rather they are seriously sick and willingly suffer for the benefit of others. This is a true miracle that directly confronts human selfishness. It is a greater miracle than the cures that take place.
The disposition of the Carmelite nuns in Lourdes is, perhaps, even more beautiful. These consecrated souls offer themselves in expiation and suffer all manner of illnesses willingly, to buy graces for those who visit the shrine. They never ask to be cured, preferring to offer their pains for the pilgrims’ benefit.
Understanding the extent to which Original Sin has decayed human nature, we can see that these outstanding acts of abnegation, so foreign to fallen man, are the greatest miracles of Lourdes.
This is the deeper reason that Our Lady performs cures at Lourdes: to produce these spiritual and moral miracles that lead souls to Heaven.
How could it be otherwise? Would Our Lady be truly good if she aided bodies at Lourdes and neglected souls? Would she truly love mankind if her primary objective were not always to lead them to love God? One could object: “This is difficult to accept, because suffering is hard to bear.”
The Agony in the Garden of Our Lord answers this objection. When the God-man was confronted with the full extent of His sufferings, He prayed: “If possible, remove this chalice from Me, but not My Will, but Thine be done.”
This is the attitude we should have in face of suffering. Then, just as an angel came to console Our Lord, Our Lady will send us consolations amid our suffering.
Thus, we should have courage, resolution and energy, understand why we must suffer and strive to take joy in it, remembering always that it is to the elect that God sends suffering.