Perhaps no other appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary has captured people’s hearts and imaginations like those she made to Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France in 1858. Our Lady appeared eighteen times that year to an impoverished, uneducated fourteen-year-old girl who lived with her family in an old jail. Since that time, more than five thousand healings are reported to have taken place in the spot where the Blessed Mother appeared; sixty-four of them the Catholic Church has proclaimed “miraculous.”
In most of her appearances to Bernadette, Our Lady was silent. When she did speak, it was to ask for prayers for the conversion of sinners and to identify herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” At Lourdes, the Blessed Mother has continued to show herself as a mother who cares for her children’s welfare — in this life and in the next.
The remarkable appearances of the Blessed Virgin to Bernadette began on February 11. That Thursday morning, Bernadette along with her sister Toinette and her cousin Jeanne Abadie had gone to the Gave River area to collect firewood for the family’s meager noonday meal. The girls crossed the bridge to an area called Massabielle on the Gave banks. Suddenly, Bernadette heard a rustling sound: “I turned my head toward the field by the side of the river but the trees seemed quite still and the noise was evidently not from them. Then I looked up and caught sight of the cave where I saw a Lady wearing a lovely dress with a bright belt. On top of her feet was a pale yellow rose, the same color as her rosary beads.”
Surprised by the sight, Bernadette reached for her own rosary tucked away in the pocket of her dress. However, her arm fell like lead to her side, and though she wanted to make the sign of the cross, she could not. The Lady then signed herself with the cross and, as she did, Bernadette was able to do likewise. Silently, the Lady let her beads slip through her fingers while Bernadette prayed the Hail Marys with hers. When the prayer ended, the Lady vanished.
The other girls had not seen the beautiful Lady, and they were curious about what Bernadette had been doing. After they questioned her repeatedly, Bernadette told them about her vision. The girls agreed to keep her secret, but as soon as she entered the house Bernadette’s sister told everything. The Soubirous were displeased, and did not believe the account. Francois begged his eldest daughter not to bring shame upon the family, and Louise spanked the girls roundly after forbidding Bernadette to return to the grotto. It was the first of many persecutions Bernadette would endure.
Bernadette continued to feel a strong yearning to go to the grotto, but out of obedience she resisted. On Saturday, she went to confession to seek the advice of a priest about what was happening, a spiritual practice she continued. He asked permission to talk it over with Abbé Peryamale, the pastor of Lourdes. Bernadette agreed. However, by Sunday word about her experience had spread throughout the village and the pressure of the townspeople was too great. Arming Bernadette with holy water to throw at the apparition in case it was from the evil one, Louise permitted her daughter to return to the grotto. Bernadette arrived, the Lady appeared, and when the young girl sprinkled the entire vial of holy water on her, the Lady only smiled and remained silent.
It was during her third apparition that the beautiful Lady finally spoke to Bernadette. Speaking in the local patois, she asked Bernadette, “Would you have the graciousness to come here for fifteen days?” Feeling the flood of interior peace that always accompanied the Lady’s visits, Bernadette immediately agreed. Then the Lady told her, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.”
Large groups of people began to accompany Bernadette each time she visited the apparition site. As the number grew steadily, so did the concern of the local officials. On the evening of February 21st, Bernadette was hauled to the home of Police Commissioner Jacomet, who angrily interrogated and threatened her about her visions. The fourteen-year-old remained calm and answered with kindness. Bernadette referred to the beautiful Lady as Aquero — the local word for “That one” — and remained steadfast in her promise to go to the grotto.
On Wednesday, February 23rd, the Lady appeared and spoke once more. “Penitence,” she told Bernadette. This was what she wanted from everyone. “Pray to God for the conversion of sinners,” she said. The Lady then asked Bernadette to kiss the ground as a penitential sign for others. Bernadette did as she was told and the crowd began to grumble. What was she doing? they wondered. Was she going mad?
The following day their suspicions seemed to be confirmed. Bernadette once again kissed the ground, moved on her knees to one side of the grotto, and began to dig at the dirt with her hands, as though following some directive. Then she lifted the accumulated mud to her lips and began to drink it.
The onlookers were horrified, but Bernadette was not finished. She tore off some pieces of a plant called dorine and began to eat them. The people were dumbfounded, and quite concerned that their little visionary was losing her mind. They didn’t know that the Lady had told her, “Go and drink at the fount and wash yourself” and “You will eat of the plant which is there.”
After her unusual actions, Bernadette was besieged by questions. “For sinners,” was all she said. Even she was uncertain why her Aquero had asked her to do such things.
However, all soon began to be clear. By the very next morning, a small pool of water had collected in the spot where Bernadette had dug. On March 1, the first healing miracle at the grotto occurred. Among the hundreds of people who were there that day was Catherine Latapie, a mother of two small children and pregnant with her third. She had fallen two years prior, paralyzing two of her fingers on her right hand.
As soon as Bernadette left the grotto that day, Catherine plunged her right hand into the clear, cold water that was rapidly filling the grotto. Instantly, she felt a warm peace flow through her. When she took her hand out of the water, her fingers were straight and the paralysis had left them. Her excitement stimulated labor, and she begged the Virgin Mary to get her home safely. Four hours later Catherine delivered a baby boy, who eventually became a priest.
Word of Catherine’s healing traveled fast. The next day sixteen hundred people were at the grotto for the apparition. This time the Lady had a message. She said to Bernadette, “Go and tell the priests that people must come here in procession and that a chapel [must] be built here.” Bernadette carried the message to Abbé Peyramale who insisted that Bernadette ask the Lady to identify herself. Bernadette complied but the Lady only smiled.
On March 4, the apparitions ended as quietly as they had begun.
Though the townspeople were disappointed that no great defining miracle had taken place to end the apparitions, many in the village still believed it was the Blessed Virgin who had come to them. They prayed for further confirmation. On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, their prayers were answered.
Bernadette woke early that morning with a great desire to go to the grotto. She knew this feeling well, and beseeched her parents to let her go. By 5:00 AM they gave in to her pleading. Somehow, Bernadette knew that as soon as Aquero arrived, she would identify herself. Four times Bernadette requested to know her name, and on the fourth try, the Lady responded. Folding her hands and looking up to heaven, she said simply, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette had no knowledge of what this name meant, but after graciously thanking the Lady, she set out at once for the rectory. When Bernadette told Abbé Peyramale the name her Aquero had given her, he was stunned. Only four years earlier, in 1854, the Church had promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “We define that the Blessed Virgin was preserved from every taint of original sin…from the first moment of her conception.” The Abbé knew that the uneducated, poverty-stricken girl that stood before him could not possibly know the meaning of this title. He also knew she could not have heard it anywhere else, except from the Lady who had been appearing to her. The woman who had visited Bernadette was indeed the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Blessed Mother visited Bernadette two more times, with the final apparition on July 16. Shortly thereafter, Bernadette entered the convent of the Sisters of Nevers and professed her vows on October 15, 1866. A tubercular condition coupled with asthma took its toll on her, and she died at the age of twenty-nine on April 16, 1879. Her body, incorrupt, lies in state to this day in the convent chapel of Nevers. Bernadette was declared a saint on December 8, 1933, seventy-one years after the Church commended devotion to Lourdes as a Marian site.
Today, Lourdes remains one of most renowned shrines of modern times. Its healing waters continue to be a source of hope and consolation. It is also a constant reminder of our Mother in heaven who intercedes on behalf of her children, who cares about their needs, and who seeks to bring them the ultimate healing — conversion to her Son. “Pray for the conversion of sinners,” she says. And we can have confidence that she is doing precisely as she instructs.
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