The pilgrims continued to pour into the grounds of the church. A short distance away a group of English speaking youth sat in the shade outside a busy cafe, checking their cameras and latest photos. It was Holy Week 1998.
"Helen, you haven't heard a word I said. What's wrong?"
"Sorry Louise. Everything seems strange, even heavy. I can't seem to settle into this pilgrimage."
Louise laughed. "Aw c'mon. Don't tell me you doubt what is happening here. I know these apparitions are not Church approved yet but look at the crowds, it's just amazing."
Helen shook her head. "No, there's something not quite right and I'm sorry, really sorry I did not choose Lourdes or Fatima as I had first intended. The truth is I followed the sheep instead of the shepherd in my kindergarten school of spiritual learning."
Louise was taken aback. "Are you saying you don't believe Our Lady is appearing here?"
"I'm saying something is wrong and that has stayed with me since I arrived." Helen answered.
"Maybe you're under spiritual attack."
Helen looked at her friend in disbelief. "Have you gone into super religiosity mode or spiritual paranoia? Who's been chipping away at your rock of solid foundation?"
Helen looked around and turned back to her friend.
"Do you know that woman over there, the one wearing the big cross around her neck?"
"Yes, I know her but not very well. She joined our prayer meeting last month with her friend." Louise replied.
"Alright then. Let's go over to her and you tell her you feel dreadful when she asks how you are, okay?"
"But I'm feeling pretty good," Louise said.
"I know that, but she doesn't, come on."
"Hello Elsie, how are you enjoying the pilgrimage?" Louise asked as she joined the nearby group.
"It's wonderful", the woman replied. "I was really ill all morning but I offered it up in reparation for our city and country. I'm feeling better this afternoon. And how are you honey?"
"I feel dreadful," Louise answered, "It's been like this since I arrived."
"Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Let me say a prayer."
The woman closed her eyes praying words that everyone could hear, her eyelashes twitching every few seconds. She nodded to herself, short knowing nods. A minute or two passed, then she looked at Louise with a solemn expression.
"Honey, I think you are under spiritual attack. The enemy doesn't want you here."
Walking back along the country road to the guest house, Louise sighed.
"Okay, so what are you saying, Helen? Is that woman just totally ungrounded, is she over the top or is she involved in something like a witches' coven?"
Helen opened the plastic container in her hand. It was hot. She took a drink of water. Looking around the countryside she thought for a moment before replacing the cap on the bottle.
"It's a learning curve for us all. You'll be able to answer your own question."
That evening Helen took a shortcut across the fields. She was thinking about what Andrew had said the night before when they had all gone to the cafe for an evening meal together.
"She's like a rare lily," he told Helen as he looked down at Louise who was sitting at the far end of the long table.
"A rare lily amongst a bunch of daffodils you mean," Helen joked.
"Maybe, maybe not," Andrew teased, "but that would be telling."
"So when do you plan to ask her out?" Helen asked.
He gulped back the remainder of his beer.
"When I pick up a bit more courage", Andrew replied, becoming more hopeful with Helen's smile. "Maybe in a few weeks!"
The heat of the day's sun left the countryside sleepy. She dropped her back-pack and rolled out the field mat before her brown head of hair disappeared from sight. Lying back, she gazed up at the blue sky. A few unexpected clouds passing overhead assured her this too would pass and soon she would be glad to be back home.
"Hi. Looks like you've had the same idea as me."
Helen sat up to see where the American accent came from. A figure sat up a few metres away, her hand waving in the air.
"Hello, well I sure knew it wasn't a voice from above," Helen answered, laughing at the blonde head that popped up out of nowhere.
"Hey! You're Irish. Yep, you are. Oh boy, maybe this is a sign?"
"I fear there is too much here about signs," Helen replied. Seeing a little smudged mascara under the young woman's eyes she asked,
"Did something upset you?"
The young woman stood up and leaned over, her long blonde hair swinging forward into the tall blades of grass as she picked up her mat, back-pack and packet of Marlboro.
"I'm Bernadette." She shook hands with Helen and sat down beside her. "My grandfather is Irish, or should I say was. He died a few years ago. I haven't met anyone else from Ireland until now."
Helen declined with thanks the cigarette offered. Bernadette pulled a slim silver lighter out of her cream slacks. A soft smooth click was barely heard. Her slender fingers with their manicured, pink-painted nails complimented the pastel pink top she wore. She held the lit cigarette in such a manner that one would be allowed to think she was on a coffee break in between movie shots. She was maybe four or five years younger than her newly acquainted pilgrim friend.
"When I started in college it was a shock. Everything was sex, drugs and abortion clinic, all available if required and that was about it. It depressed me. I want to fall in love, follow the moral route. You know, healthy soul, happy heart. I felt I was climbing a mountain but everyone was in my way and I couldn't get past. Even my pals all jumped into the net of buy and sell to reap the cost of pain and unrest afterwards."
Helen listened and wondered what kind of work was ahead for this American lady endowed with a pioneering spirit still in its embryonic stage.
Bernadette checked one of her varnished nails at close scrutiny before continuing. "I decided to go on pilgrimage on this college break. I heard about what's going on here and the apparitions. Before my granddad died - we were so close, he gave me his beads. Said he had them in Ireland, prayed on them everyday and the rosary got him through some pretty bad storms. He said I would have storms too but that the Mass would be my foundation stone with our Lady putting the steps from there in front of me.
Things got tough at college. When they heard I was going on a Catholic pilgrimage, I got the usual cynical and mocking jabs saying maybe I will return with my beads having turned to gold. They knew about my grandfather and the beads, and of course my love of the faith."
"What happened?" Helen asked.
"I lost my beads yesterday evening climbing the mountain and I searched everywhere. Handmade in Ireland, they were beyond a price. They held a deeper meaning than anyone will know."
Helen pondered this unexpected meeting. Here was a beautiful young woman who would obviously stand out in the crowds wherever she went. Already she was a victim of prejudice and reactions for all that she stood for. Her principles and values were evident in her presence coupled with a natural beauty that was her heritage and blessing. She would have many storms ahead, as her grandfather so well knew. But she would be equipped for those storms through her faith in God and closeness to Mary.
"Now I can't find my grandfather's rosary beads. How can I go back without them. It was his gift to me, my link to him and to my prayer."
Helen searched in her own heart. What would she do, she quickly asked herself. It was times like this she wouldn't have minded smoking a cigarette with her American friend!
"Bernadette, your grandfather's beads were to help you set out on the journey. I know those beads were of a personal family link. But seek God within not in external signs. Your grandfather was right in all he said. Stay with that and know the inner house is built on your foundation of prayer."
At supper that night Helen listened to all the stories of who met the alleged visionaries and what they said or what they saw. She wanted to listen with interest but she couldn't. Everyone was there to meet or catch a glimpse of the 'visionaries'. Something wasn't quite right.
The next morning, Helen felt a need to prepare for confession. The image of long queues of people on the church grounds came to mind. Souls unburdening their lot one by one to the priest must be exhausting for him. With that in mind she prayed for the confessor she was yet to meet.
Beneath the hot sun, line after line of each queue continued to grow. Helen walked slowly by. French/English, German/French/Italian, English/Spanish and so forth were the many different languages available. As she was about to turn around and go to the next aisle she read the sign in front of her....English/Portuguese. The queue was moving steadily and before she knew it she had stepped into the line.
The priest took in the approaching penitent in a quick glance. At the end of confessing, Helen looked up and asked,
"Father, I know there is a queue behind me, but may I ask you something about a spiritual matter that will be very brief?"
He thought for a moment and then said something that astonished her.
"Why don't you meet me tomorrow at 11:30 am. Wait for me at the sacristy door after Mass. We will have time to talk then."
Louise was on her second cappuccino after lunch the following day when she saw her pal come out of the building. She jumped up from her chair and ran down the road, her sun hat falling off her head as she caught up with Helen who was walking in the opposite direction.
"How did it go? You were chatting with the priest for ages. Do you know he gives retreats in many countries? What did you talk about?"
"We talked about many things. After giving me wise spiritual counsel regarding my own soul, he then asked me to pray for priests and for the Church. Almost as if he wanted to tell me something but he couldn't. Well, not to a simple soul like myself. I still don't know how I got to speak to such an incredible man of God. I wanted to cry when it was time to say goodbye, it was almost like a sadness. I didn't understand why I felt that, I still don't."
It was Holy Week, two years to the day since her pilgrimage. Helen felt a strong need to pray for the priest who had spoken so much to her heart then. Once again she prayed for him in thanksgiving for his spiritual guidance and extraordinary wisdom. As she did so the words from Scripture came to mind..."A sword will pierce your own soul too, so that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be laid bare." The prophetic words of Simeon took her aback and left her thinking about the priest.
The thought of dropping him a line came to mind but she shied away from doing so, telling herself he must be inundated with mail and would have no recollection of her meeting with him.
"I thought you should read this," Louise said as she stopped by on her way from work one summer's evening.
Helen opened the newspaper. The priest who had given all his time and attention to an endless flow of pilgrims, offering them clean spiritual water to drink, had finally decided to speak publicly.
Helen sat down. Those moments of kneeling before this priest on pilgrimage were before her again. Now here he was in the news.
He could no longer endorse, approve or encourage pilgrims to visit this place of alleged apparitions. What he had come to understand after a time of prayer, fasting, observing, and speaking to the alleged visionaries, confirmed his fears. He did not believe the Mother of God was appearing there.
Helen was silent. Her heart sank. Why had she not followed that prompting to write to this holy man. That night she took out pad and pen and wrote to the priest.
Already the Judas' in the camp feared the priest Helen had knelt before. In his faithful service to God, the Spirit of the Lord was speaking to him and those in the camp knew that and were secretly plotting and planning his removal.
"A sword will pierce your own soul too, so that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be laid bare." And now Helen knew how deep the sword must have pierced his heart.
The letter box gave a little rattle. Helen walked out to the hallway and picked up the airmail letter. Returning to the living room she opened and read the pages. She read and re-read his handwritten reply. He confirmed the article she had read in the newspaper was what he had said. Then Helen read about the horror of the plot and how they had him removed. What he had not mentioned to her were the death threats that he was still receiving, of which she had only come to know about.
That night Helen watched the movie The Song of Bernadette. She was struck by the actress' portrayal of the young seer. Her gracious manner, simplicity and refreshing honesty touched all who had met Bernadette. After the film Helen sat there drinking coffee, thinking about the pilgrimage she had made a few years previously. How could she have overlooked Lourdes or Fatima and allowed herself to be diverted to a place that was shrouded in secrets and strange happenings.
She recalled a story about Bernadette. A businessman arrived in Lourdes, sought out the young seer and pressed money into her hand. The visionary thanked him but returned the money to him and said,
"It burns in my hand."
There were many questions to be answered about the alleged apparations that were still taking place in the country she had visited in Europe. As the network promoting the 'messages' was growing, so too were the questions about how it really began and who exactly or what group was involved from the beginning with the children. The Lord had sent his messenger and in plotting, they found a way to have him removed.
Across the Atlantic ocean, in a country parish many miles from city lights and sensational news, a priest knelt in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. He had been busy writing that day. Finally seeing beyond his anguish and pain at all that had happened, he was consoled by the fact that certain souls were destined to have crossed his path and what God has blessed, there the flowers would bloom. His work was done, for now.
The doorbell rang. It was Louise and Andrew. She picked up her airmail letter to drop in the post box en route to their engagement party. She grabbed her coat.
As the letter slipped through the post box she whispered a prayer for her priest friend - the priest who had sipped from the cup of suffering. The same priest who like John the Baptist had prepared the way in speaking the truth. It would only be a matter of time.
"Those who sow in tears will reap in joy!"
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