New Year, new connections with Our Lady of Lourdes
by Luisa Varona
“We are one parish family and I see this as a permanent relationship. Our Lady is not a person you go visit. She is a member of the family and we are working together.”
- Monsignor Schwanger
As we sit in Mass each Sunday, we listen attentively to our parish priests as they deliver the words and messages handed down to our collective, faithful Catholic family through our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth and ultimate sacrifice for our salvation. We each approach Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church with a world of thoughts, prayers, fears, worries, but also gratitude and joy. We sit in those pews hoping for a direct sign from above that lets us know we are on the right path or that we are conducting ourselves according to our faith and God’s will. We search for heavenly connection and renewed faith. And as we listen attentively to the homily, our church leaders hope for that same connection that they may justly represent the Word of God and reach each of our hearts so that we not only grow in faith but also community. It is with that in mind that I share my conversation with our very own Monsignor Kenneth Schwanger as we reflected on our pilgrimage as the Hospitalité of Miami in June of this past year and the graces Our Lady has brought to his life and in turn our church family.
As we sat and chatted outside in the courtyard this past month, I confess I was worried about where to begin and what to ask. I had so many questions and having had the privilege of traveling with Monsignor to Lourdes, I had a very specific question regarding a special moment we shared as pilgrims and volunteers that moved us profoundly. Then something Monsignor shared put me immediately at ease, because I was reminded that we ALL struggle with connection. By simply sharing that he had always prayed to develop a closer relationship with Mary, I was reminded that we are all searching, whether we are studied, Catholic leaders or simple parishioners, God is waiting for us to seek Him out. When I asked Monsignor to share how his special connection to Our Blessed Mother started, he began by telling me about his own, dear mother and her constant faith and impression on his own formation and how when she passed he kept a small Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception statue that belonged to her. This is something I have learned time and time again, whether it’s Pope John Paul II, St Maximilian Kolbe or our own Monsignor, our mothers are the first to instill faith and devotion in our Blessed Mother. They are the ones that figure out immediately, that if they should falter that it’s Mary who will guide us the rest of the way. He further explained that as pastor at St Jerome, he “appreciated Mary”, but didn’t really have a close relationship with Her until being transferred to our parish months after his own mother had passed away. It was then that he began to explore closely what Mary was all about. As he explains, “I always pay attention to the patron of my assigned church”. Being that this was Our Lady of Lourdes, it was time to delve deeper into Her life and significance to our Catholic church. And so, during his second year at our church he did a virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes with the North American Volunteers; conducting a healing mass that lasted until 1am! Everyone stayed until that late hour and he was moved and impressed. That next year, five parishioners traveled with the North American Volunteers to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France as representatives of our parish to see how we can be more connected to their work.
He himself had visited as a young priest in 1999 when he embarked on the spiritual trek of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela from Lourdes. This rigorous walk through the Pyrenes towards Portugal revealed to him how difficult it is to be holy and feel the presence of God when you are in pain or suffering. By this he explains, that physical healing leads us to psychological and spiritual healing, and that was his first impression while at Lourdes. It is through our healing process that God levels and smooths our own rough paths. “When we seek physical and spiritual healing at Lourdes, Mary is ‘filling the valleys and lowering the mountains’ in our lives. You might be helping someone in a wheelchair, but the truth is that everyone needs healing and through Mary’s intercession we receive it there in a very powerful way”. That first time in Lourdes, he didn’t feel he could bathe in the piscines, because he “wasn’t sick”. When that first group returned to Miami and shared their experiences, however, he vowed to return. So, in 2012, two years after losing his mother and being relocated to our church, he returned as a volunteer to serve for the very first time. He was surprised by the intimacy and joy of serving. In particular, he recalls serving in the family piscine with a team of older French men and marveled at the care and attentiveness with which each family was handled in their respective language. This moved him to tears, seeing how kind and present the servers were after such a long day. And this brought me to the question I had been hoping to ask since our visit, when he was officiating over an intimate Mass with our group and teared up in such a way that he had to pause. We were all so moved, and I wondered, what brought him to tears that day. He smiled at my question and shared that he doesn’t cry out of pain, but rather when something is so beautiful that it overwhelms him. At Lourdes he has been overwhelmed by such beauty on more than one occasion. “Being there one is witness to a beautiful expression of faith and it is powerful to see. It is faith in action from all around the world”. For this reason, when we gathered as Hospitalité de Miami for the first time to celebrate Mass in Lourdes this past June, Monsignor was overcome by tears at the altar. The beauty of seeing Her work through us and seeing his answered prayers laid out so joyously before him, overwhelmed him. He saw his own journey that began once he bid farewell to his own mother, and then be embraced so fully by his celestial Mother, who in turn continues to guide him and now us. His prayer was answered and transformed to bring us all closer as a community. And seeing our Blessed Mother’s work was just awesome to behold.
And so, as we embark on this new year, Monsignor wishes to continue growing this healthy relationship that offers so much to our community. Now celebrating nine years at OLOL, his connection to Mary has yielded five marvelous opportunities to serve with her at the Sanctuary and the formation of the Hospitalité de Miami that brings the experience of Lourdes to our entire community and archdiocese through our rosary processions and healing Masses. The pilgrimage is much bigger than just a trip. Now, the challenge is finding enough room on the plane for all the faithful who wish to go, while keeping everything affordable. “I see the Hospitalité continuing to grow and including people from all over the Archdiocese. It belongs to all of us and is called to serve forever. We all have to say our “yes” to our blessed Mother.”