Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette
There is a quotation in Sacred Scripture regarding Jerusalem that reads: “JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM, IF I SHOULD EVER FORGET YOU...”
There are many holy places that this passage would apply to including Jerusalem. But for us, when we hear this passage, our minds race to that magical place where honor is given to Our Lord Jesus through His Mother Mary, her shrine at Lourdes in France.
LOURDES, LOURDES, IF I SHOULD EVER FORGET YOU.....
Lourdes is such a tribute to, and affirmation of, the love and care, the concern, patience, and attention that is showered on us by our Heavenly Family. It is also a magnificent prayer of faith the world has been given in the the desire of Our Sweet Mary, Bernadette’s Aquero (Dear One), to take care of our physical and spiritual needs. The natural question we are asked after we have visited Lourdes is, DID YOU SEE ANY MIRACLES, ANY CURES IN LOURDES?
Praise you, Jesus, we have seen so many miracles, so many gifts from Son to Mother, and Mother to children. Lourdes is the Wedding Feast of Cana, multiplied a thousand fold. We can just picture Jesus and Mary up in heaven. “Mother, it’s not my problem”, and Mary, just smiling, saying to us “Do whatever He tells you”. Miracles abound in Lourdes.
We have SEEN MIRACLES in Lourdes. We have seen CURES in Lourdes. In order for us to witness to the physical cures the Lord has given us at Lourdes, we have a man in our little Parish church who was cured of terminal lung cancer in the baths in Lourdes.
We’re told that in France, the eldest daughter of the Church, less than 5% of the Catholic population go to Church and receive the Sacraments. We’re not about to argue these statistics, but if they’re true, all these people must be at Lourdes each time we visit there. We have seen Faith in Lourdes, that if, spread over the entire world, would be strong enough to give us peace forever.
WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT? WHAT HAPPENED IN LOURDES?
Why did Mary come? What was so important at this time in history, in this country? It’s easy in retrospect to understand the need for divine intervention in 1858. The Church had gone through one of its worst periods possible in Europe. It had not quite recovered from the French Revolution. New governments, new revolutions attacked the Church and the people. In 1848, the Archbishop of Paris was murdered when yet another revolution took place in France. It then spread itself to Rome. The Pope’s Prime Minister was murdered. The Papal Palace was attacked. Many were wounded or killed. It became violent to the point of driving Pope Pius IX out of the Vatican State. Belief and trust in the promise of Jesus waned badly. It seemed as if the Church was tolling its death knell. Louis Napoleon brought his French troops to the aid of the Church temporarily, and the Pope was able to return to Rome. But the calm was shortlived. The war clouds loomed over the horizon again. Satan poised his troops in preparation for the final destruction of the Church.
In 1854, in the midst of this, and in the face of massive opposition, one of Mary’s staunchest supporters, Pope Pius IX proclaimed to the world what had been believed down through the centuries, but had never been made a Dogma of the Church. THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION was declared fact, and all Catholics were required to believe this. There had been a popular heresy spreading throughout Europe at this time, Pantheism, which claimed that man was equal with God. By this proclamation, Our Lord Jesus through the Pope declared that with the exception of Jesus, only Mary was conceived without Original Sin. The rest of the human race are heirs of Adam and Eve, and all that goes with it.
This proclamation caused more problems than it meant to solve. Rumbling went on inside the Church, and outsidein Protestant circles. It was outrageous, they said, to give this singular honor to a woman. Shades of Lucifer! He, the once favored angel of God, made this same statememt when told that a woman would be Queen of Heaven and Earth, of all the Angels and the Saints. His pride couldn’t take this. He and his band of angels revolted against God and Heaven. The cry of Mica-el, (Who is Like God?) reverbated the Heavens. With Michael the Archangel at the helm, the loyal angels of God cast Lucifer and his pack down into the black hole of hell. Lucifer has hated the name of Mary since that time. Under the influence of Satan, the enemies of the Church claimed Mary was from Adam as we all are; that she came into the world with the same stain of sin that everyone else was born with. “It was one thing for the peasants, the uninformed, to believe in this superstition”, they ranted. “How could the Church make this farce into dogma?”
Our Lady of Patience, my Mary, who has never given up on us in 2,000 years, waited. One year went by. The situation was bad. Two years went by. Not much change took place in the attitudes of her children towards the new Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The third year passed. But still she waited. And then she did the predictable. She found a remote town of no great importance, and within that speck on the earth, she chose a simple child of the poorest family in the region, and led her to a garbage dump. From that vantage point she was to send out a message to the world for all time, loud and clear, confirmation of Pope Pius’ IX dogma, in the statement she made in the 16th Apparition on the Feast of the Annunciation,
I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
She even spoke the words in a local patois, or dialect, rather than the language of the country, to a child who had no idea what the words meant.
But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Whenever we talk of Lourdes, we get so excited that we go off in many directions. We have to go back to the beginning, to that cold winter day in February, 1858, when my Mary blessed this hamlet with her presence. In 1858, Lourdes was not on the map. It was a sleepy little village nestled in the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France. Lourdes is not known for its great weather. Even now the temperature is cooler, and the area more prone to rain than the rest of southern France. This particular winter of 1858 was bitter, especially for the Soubirous family. Their life had been difficult for many years.
The father, Francois Soubirous, was a “good old boy”; he had a great need for acceptance. In the early days of his marriage to Louise, they had a Mill, the Boly Mill, where St. Bernadette was born. They had a modest business, and their life was good. But when Francois went to the local cafe, he had to buy drinks for everyone. When people bought flour from their mill, any hard luck story would be good enough for Francois to extend credit to them. When they didn’t pay their bills, he understood their sad story. But his creditors didn’t understand his sad stories, and so, in short order, he lost his business and the mill.
By the year 1856, his family had been dishonored to the point of being forced to live in a one-room former prison in Lourdes, called The Cachot (the Cell, or Lock up). The reason it was no longer used as a prison was because it was considered below human living standards. Into this hovel, Francois and Louise Soubirous, and their four children moved. Le Cachot is approximately 15 by 20 feet. These are intolerable living conditions for 6 people. (To explain violence in Ghetto situations, scientific experiments have been done on laboratory rats in cramped quarters. It is a scientific fact that when they are placed into these crowded conditions, they fight with and eventually kill each other.) Yet the cousin of the Soubirous family, named Sajous, who lived above them, testified that he never once heard them quarrel.
To add to their disgrace, Francois was put in prison on suspicion of having stolen some flour from a local mill, where he had worked temporarily. The only evidence against him was that his living conditions were so bad he became the most logical suspect. It was so logical to the local police, that although Francois had never been accused of a crime before, they put him in jail. The Soubirous’ lived below the poverty level. In those days, there was no welfare, but if there had been, they would have been prime candidates. When the father worked, he received wages slightly less than what was paid to hire out a horse. Louise did domestic work, but between the two of them, they could not bring in enough money to support their family. Yet, somehow they survived.
Into this background, we bring Bernadette Soubirous, an illiterate, extremely unhealthy little 14 year old girl. We sometimes think it’s a shame that she was involved with the apparitions at Lourdes. She is such a pillar of strength, such a dynamic saint on her own, without the gift of the great privilege she was given. Or maybe it was because of the apparitions by Our Lady. However, it’s important to point out that Mary has appeared to many people over the centuries, and very few of them have become saints. During the time of Bernadette, there were the two children from La Sallette, whose lives would never have been considered exemplary, in light of the fact that the Mother of God had come to them. The children of Pontmain, Beauraing or Banneux are not being considered for any special praises by the Church. But then there is Bernadette, special Bernadette.
Our Lady picks the people whom she graces with her presence very carefully. On the surface, most of the time, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for her choices. One of the feelings most frequently expressed regarding a visionary is WHY HIM, WHY HER, WHY THEM?While it’s true in the case of Bernadette that we may never have heard of her without the apparitions, she would always have been a strong defender of the faith in her own simple way, would have led a holy life, and would have been a saint, even if she were never Canonized.
Bernadette was always a good girl, a holy girl, a humble girl. For someone as famous as she became, she had no exaggerated impressions of her self worth. When asked how she felt about receiving such a special gift from Our Lady, she made the statement “ What do you think of me? Don’t I realize that the Blessed Virgin chose me because I was the most ignorant? If she had found anyone more ignorant than myself, she would have chosen her.” In another instance, she said of herself, “The Blessed Virgin used me like a broom. What do you do with a broom when you have finished sweeping? You put it back in its place, behind the door.”
February 11, 1858 started out as just another cold winter day in Lourdes. There had been snow in January. The remnants could be seen all over the town in the form of snow-capped mounds of dirt, white accents coloring the trees and buildings. After the snowfall, the weather turned colder, causing much of the snow to freeze over into ice. Earlier on this particular day in February, there had been a bitter cold rain. It had stopped, but a light drizzle remained. Cold winds whipped through the little village, searching for breaks in the armor of coats, scarves, mittens and boots. It was not a good day to be out.
The sharp winds penetrated the walls of the Cachot, causing a chill to run through Louise Soubirous. She looked to their meager supply of twigs and branches which were used for the fireplace. It was almost gone. This was not only their sole source of heat for the house; they also used the fireplace to cook their food. Most people had supplies of firewood piled high for this purpose, whereas the Soubirous’ had to be content with wet twigs and branches which smoked up their little dwelling place. Louise was concerned that the smoke would bother Bernadette’s delicate lungs, but she had no choice. The child would have to cough; they could not afford to buy the wood they needed.
Her husband, Francois, rested on the bed. He had worked for a few hours earlier in the day. It was the first work he had gotten in some time. He wasn’t really tired, but he wanted everyone to know how hard he had labored for the family. He felt a spark of hope. Perhaps things were going to take a turn for the better. Louise understood her husband. She didn’t want to take away from him this moment of accomplishment.
She turned to the girls, Bernadette, her oldest and sickest, and Toinette. She didn’t want Bernadette to go for the wood. Bernadette, on the other hand, wanted to go out. She felt she was a drain on the family because of her illness. She was also suffering cabin fever, from being indoors so much. She was self conscious because she couldn’t do all the things the other children could. She begged her mother to let her go with Toinette. Finally, Louise gave in. She was to ponder for many years to come if their lives would have changed so drastically had she not let Bernadette go that day. She had no way of knowing as she watched the two girls leave the house that the Bernadette who left would never return. She had been touched by the Lady from Heaven; and would never be the same.
We take you to a place high in the sky, so you can watch the drama of February 11, 1858 unfold, where heaven and earth meet, the divine touches the human, and the world is affected for all time. On earth, we see Bernadette and Toinette frolicking through the town, picking up a playmate, Jeanne Abadie. They don’t even know where they are being directed. Their chore is to pick up firewood, wherever they can find it. At the other end of the spectrum, we see the clouds open, and a bright light appears from Paradise, moving slowly towards earth. The little girls wind their way through the town, then down the hill in the direction of the River Gave. From our vantage point, we can hear choirs of angels singing joyous hymns in anticipation of the miracle that is to take place. If we could see into God’s dimension, we would be able to witness these angels surrounding and carrying the most magnificent creature the Lord has ever placed on the earth. Slowly, they descend from the Heavens, the drama building. We can feel our hearts pounding as the angels and the Queen get closer and closer to earth.
The children approach the River Gave. They see a cave on the other side. It’s the Grotto of Massabiele, a garbage dump. But it’s dry inside. They can see sticks and twigs on the ground. Bernadette hesitates crossing the river, for fear she will catch cold. Her mother will kill her if she finds out that Bernadette even entertained the idea of crossing. The girls chide her. She feels a flush of anger and resentment rise up in her cheeks. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade across the water. At the same time a streak of light flashes across the sky at meteoric speed. We don’t know if the other children see it. But as Bernadette walks out of the water, she is thrown to her knees by an unknown force. Before her is a brilliance that is indescribable. It’s dazzling, yet there is a softness, a warmth, a shimmering, but oh, so much more. She looks to an alcove at the right of the grotto. She is speechless. The choir of angels reaches its highest pitch as the eyes of Bernadette and the Lady meet. An electric beam rivets the gaze of the two together. Bernadette feels her heart swelling. She is afraid it will burst. She cannot breathe. She trembles; her fear turning into excitement, wonderment. She can’t take her eyes off the Lady. It has begun. The Queen of Heaven comes to speak to her people. God puts aside the laws of nature, and creates MIRACLE!
MARY - Go to the spring yonder and drink and wash yourself.
Bernadette jumped backwards, keeping her eyes on the Lady, wanting so to please her. She thought to herself. Spring? What Spring? She assumed Aquero meant the mill stream, and so she fell to her knees, and began to slide towards it. When she had almost reached the place, she turned back to be sure this was what Mary had meant. Our Lady shook her head. It was not the right place. The child thought, it must be the River Gave. She headed for the River, which was some distance away. Mary called out, “Not to the Gave, please”. Even the way she said it made Bernadette wince. Apparently the Lady was not pleased with the River Gave.
Bernadette was at a loss to know what the Lady meant. She twirled around uncertainly, then started back towards Mary. Our Lady repeated the message: “Go to the spring yonder and drink and wash yourself”. Then, in an effort to help the girl, she added “Go eat the plants you will find yonder.”Bernadette looked around, wondering where she could find plants to eat. Over to the right in a corner was a small clump of grass sticking out of the rock. She ran over to it, and began to chew it. The grass tasted bitter, but she did not mind. So far, so good. She had taken care of the last part of the request. But where was there a spring to drink from? She looked around desperately, as if there were a time limit involved. She was afraid if she did not obey Mary’s commands immediately, the Lady would realize how stupid she was, get disgusted and leave.
There was nothing there but some wet ground near the grass. Approaching a state of panic, she dropped to her knees, and began to dig in the dirt with her hands. She looked like a little squirrel, burrowing into the earth. Down a ways, she felt liquid, most likely from the last flood, she thought. But if this was what the Lady wanted, she would give it to her. The obedient daughter dug deeper and deeper until there was a little puddle, just enough water to cup in her hands. She tried to get it out of the ground, but wound up picking up a combination of water and mud. She washed her hands and face, getting mud all over herself. Then she tried to cup enough water in her hands to drink. What she accomplished was swallowing a handful of mud. Almost immediately, her stomach rejected it; she began to gag. She couldn’t get it out of her throat. Her mother and aunt ran to her with some water; the sorrowful figure vomited up the dirt, grass and water. The insensitive crowd began to laugh when she covered her face with mud. When she vomited, they became hysterical. Surely, she was mad.
Bernadette cried hard tears, partly because of the physical discomfort of the mud in her throat, partly because she was embarrassed, but mostly because she had failed the lady. Her mother was noticeably angry as she took the child away. Everybody else left the grotto, mumbling that the whole thing was lunacy, and Bernadette had gone crazy. The attention of the onlookers was so much on Bernadette that no one noticed a little puddle of water filling up the hole Bernadette had dug, which overflowed and began to trickle, forming a pool. This was the beginning of the MIRACULOUS SPRING, which has not stopped flowing from that time to this.
From this time forward, every time Mary appeared to Bernadette, she asked her to drink and wash in the spring. By this time, the child could cup her hands and get enough water to drink. The people assumed that this was a special ceremony just for Bernadette and the Lady. But as we can see 130 years later, and as the people at Lourdes came to realize shortly after the Apparitions, Our Lady was really talking to the people through this ritual she had Bernadette perform. She wanted all of us to “Drink and wash ourselves in the spring”.
Bernadette tells us that in this apparition, she asks the Lady to identify herself three times. The Lady smiles. The child pictures Cure Peyramale, shouting out his demand that the Lady tell Bernadette who she is. Bernadette tries a fourth time.
In Bernadette’s own words,
“Aquero (the Lady) drew apart her clasped hands, and let both her arms hang down. Then she put her hands together again at the level of her breast, lifted her eyes towards Heaven, and said
‘I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION’”
THE MIRACLE OF THE BATHS HAD BEGUN.
For the first 50 years, the cures and miracles were attributed mainly to immersion into the miraculous baths. But Our Lady’s plan was not yet finished. When organized pilgrimages began to go to Lourdes, a custom was initiated, called THE PROCESSION OF THE BLESSING OF THE SICK, in which a procession began from the Grotto of Massabiele, all the way around the grounds of Lourdes, down to the front of the Basilica of the Rosary. The sick were lined up in front of the Basilica. The very last person in the Procession was JESUS, in the Blessed Sacrament. As the celebrant faced the people from the front of the Basilica, and raised the King of the World in the monstrance, cries could be heard from various parts of the shrine. Litters pushed through the crowds, moving very quickly to the hospitals. Miracles had occurred! Those of us who have a great devotion to, and faith in the power of the Eucharist, call these, MIRACLES OF THE EUCHARIST AT LOURDES. Today, the people at Lourdes attribute half the cures to the Miraculous Baths, and half to the Miracle of the Eucharist in the Procession of the Sick.
There are special places in Lourdes for each pilgrim who goes there. Many spend most of their time at the Grotto, praying to Our Lady. Others go to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, just below the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Our Lord Jesus is always there in the Blessed Sacrament, loving, blessing, helping, healing. Mary is alive and well and living in Lourdes. It is one of the major shrines in the world. It is a place of great hope, and great joy. There is a magic in Lourdes that has never left since my Lady visited here for the first time in 1858.
Bernadette left Lourdes in 1866 for the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, France, 600 miles to the north of Lourdes, and 300 miles south of Paris. The prediction of Mary to Bernadette on February 18, 1858, followed her all her life. “I cannot promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.”Victor Hugo, a French novelist and playwright of the 19th Century summed it up well. He said Our Lady asked Bernadette to EAT BITTER HERBS AND DRINK MUDDY WATER. This was to be the pattern of Bernadette’s life. She bore it well not only during the time of the Apparitions, but also for the 13 years she spent in the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers.
While at the Convent of St. Gildard, Bernadette was once asked by a young child “Sister, have you seen the Virgin Mary? Was she very beautiful?” Bernadette’s answer was
“OH! SO BEAUTIFUL THAT WHEN ONE SEES HER ONCE, HE LONGS TO DIE TO SEE HER AGAIN!”
This article is an excerpt from Bob and Penny Lord's book, The Many Faces of Mary," published by Journeys of Faith
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.” Many of the ebooks are now available at Smashwords.com.