by Theresa Cavicchio
The months of February through July of 1858 marked a time of exceptional grace for the people of Lourdes, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France. There, in an overgrown grotto, the Queen of Heaven and Earth appeared to a simple peasant girl.
Bernadette Soubirous (1844 - 1879) is indelibly linked to the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, celebrated on February 11th. Bernadette was gifted with multiple apparitions of the beautiful lady who eventually revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception -- Mary, the Mother of God.
The life of Bernadette reveals twin threads of humility and suffering: eldest of nine children; minimally educated; frail and sickly from asthma and after-effects of cholera; desperately poor family living in one dark, damp room, exacerbating her fragile health.
A routine chore sent Bernadette, her sister, and a friend out foraging for kindling wood along the River Gave on the morning of February 11th. The two stronger girls crossed a shallow stretch of frigid water. Bernadette, who stayed behind, heard a sound like a gust of wind, calling her attention to the grotto of Massabielle on the riverbank. The grotto appeared bathed in golden light, and from it emerged a beautiful lady.
She appeared to be 16 or 17 years old, wearing a white veil and robe girded with blue, bare feet with a golden rose atop each, on her right arm a rosary of white beads and golden chain. She smiled at Bernadette, who knelt. The Lady held her rosary while Bernadette prayed on the beads of her own. The Lady recited only the Glory Be prayer. No words were exchanged, and only Bernadette saw the vision.
Against Bernadette’s wishes, word of the vision spread rapidly. Seventeen additional apparitions would follow. During the third, the Lady spoke to Bernadette for the first time and in local dialect: “Would you have the kindness to come here for fifteen days?”, adding that she could not promise Bernadette happiness in this world, but only in “the other.”
On other occasions, the Lady asked for penance and prayer for the conversion of sinners. At these times, Bernadette’s face, usually radiant and transfixed in ecstasy during apparitions, became somber.
During the ninth apparition, Bernadette was directed to drink and bathe in the small puddle of muddy water she had been told to unearth in the cave of the grotto, and to kiss the ground as penance for sinners. That puddle would become a great spring bubbling up from underground, destined to bring healing and peace to countless souls far into the future.
Some days later, Bernadette received a message for the priests: the Lady desired a chapel to be built on that site, and for people to come there in procession. The skeptical parish priest directed Bernadette to ask the Lady’s identity and for a sign to prove credibility.
On March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, responding to Bernadette’s pleading, the Lady finally revealed her identity, hands folded and eyes raised to heaven: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Unfamiliar with these words, Bernadette dutifully repeated them to herself all the way to the rectory.
The parish priest received this revelation in a state of amazement. Only four years prior, Pope Pius IX had declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception to be Church dogma. The peasant population may have heard the term but would have no understanding of its meaning.
Officials of Church and state watched in wonder and concern as the crowds grew larger with each apparition, into the thousands, though the visions remained reserved for Bernadette alone. She was subjected to the most intense scrutiny and questioning by religious and civil authorities; her testimony unwaveringly reported the Lady’s words and appearance.
The negative impact on Bernadette and her family was startling and unwelcome, but one positive outcome is described by Elizabeth Ficocelli, author of Lourdes: Font of Faith, Hope, and Charity -- the apparitions led Bernadette to understand “that there was a greater state of poverty than that which her family suffered: the poverty of sin and disbelief.”
Her faith thus strengthened, Bernadette’s desire for the Eucharist was finally satisfied on June 3rd when she received her First Communion.
On July 16th, the final apparition occurred, no words being spoken. Elizabeth Ficocelli chronicles the understated event: “And so the apparitions ended as they began, in beauty and in silence. Quietly, inconspicuously, the heavenly visits at Massabielle were over.”
The final chapter of Bernadette’s life began with her entrance to the Sisters of Charity at Nevers, three hundred miles from Lourdes, in 1866. From the outset, she learned that humility, penance, and suffering on many levels would continue in her life as a religious.
As Sister Marie-Bernarde, she willingly accepted the most menial tasks, scrupulously avoiding drawing attention to herself. She cared for the ill in the infirmary, and served as sacristan, until her own health deteriorated. Convent life afforded many opportunities to offer penance for the conversion of sinners.
On April 16, 1879, the agony which Bernadette had endured for many months, mainly from tuberculosis, finally came to an end, and she entered her true home, where she could gaze for all eternity on the blessed face she had been privileged to see at Lourdes.
In A Woman Clothed with the Sun, an anthology of eight Marian apparitions, we read: “the visions lasted only … five months … yet … their radiance sufficed to illumine Bernadette’s entire life, as the knowledge of them has continued to illumine the lives of millions ever since.”
Living testament to that radiance is given by incalculable numbers of pilgrims and recipients -- documented or not -- of physical, emotional, and spiritual healings resulting from the miraculous events of Lourdes and its beneficent waters.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us! Saint Bernadette Soubirous, pray for us!
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