The saint of Lourdes … the saint of penance … the saint of poverty … Our Lady’s child visionary is also to many the saint of family. Born January 7, 1844 at a time of prosperity for her family, her parents and younger siblings lived in an environment of deep love and devotion for each other. However, hard times soon fell on agricultural France, and worse yet, a string of seemingly endless bad luck fell on the Soubirous family. Put to the test time and again, Bernadette and her family discovered the meaning of unconditional commitment.
Bernadette at the time of her death, April 16, 1879
Bernadette’s miraculously preserved body remained buried in a damp grave for thirty years until the cause for beatification was taken up. To this day, the body of Bernadette is a profound source of inspiration and of mystery surrounding the ways of the Lord. The face of Bernadette is one of surreal beauty, and will remain for us always the face that gazed into the eyes of the Mother of God.
Chronology of the Apparitions at Lourdes, France.
“The first time I went to the Grotto, was Thursday, 11th February, 1858. I went to gather firewood with two other little girls (Toinette, her sister, and Jeanne Abadie, nicknamed Balourn). When we got to the mill (of Savy), I asked the other two if they would like to see where the water of the mill joins the Gave. They said ‘Yes.’ From there we followed the canal. When we arrived there (at the foot of the rock of Massabielle) we found ourselves before a grotto. As they could go no further, my two companions prepared to cross the water lying before their path; so I found myself alone on the other side. They crossed the water; they started to cry. I asked them why and they told me that the water was cold. I begged them to help me throw a few rocks into the water so that I could cross without taking my stockings off. They replied that I could do as they had done. Then I went a bit further to see if I could cross without taking my stockings off, but without success.”
“I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.”
“The Lady made a sign for me to approach; but I was seized with fear, and I did not dare, thinking that I was faced with an illusion. I rubbed my eyes, but in vain. I looked again, and I could still see the same Lady. Then I put my hand into my pocket, and took my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but in vain; I could not raise my hand to my forehead, it kept on dropping. Then a violent impression took hold of me more strongly, but I did not go.”
“The Lady took the rosary that she held in her hands and she made the sign of the cross. Then I commenced not to be afraid. I took my rosary again; I was able to make the sign of the cross; from that moment I felt perfectly undisturbed in mind. I knelt down and said my rosary, seeing this Lady always before my eyes. The Vision slipped the beads of her rosary between her fingers, but she did not move her lips. When I had said my rosary the Lady made a sign for me to approach, but I did not dare. I stayed in the same place. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared.
I started to remove the other stocking to cross the shallow water near the grotto so as to join my companions. And we went away. As we returned, I asked my companions if they had seen anything. ‘No,’; they replied. ‘And what about you? Did you see anything?’ ‘Oh, no, if you have seen nothing, neither have I.’ “
“I thought I had been mistaken. But as we went, all the way, they kept asking me what I had seen. I did not want to tell them. Seeing that they kept on asking I decided to tell them, on condition that they would tell nobody. They promised not to tell. They said that I must never go there again, nor would they, thinking that it was someone who would harm us. I said no. As soon as they arrived home they hastened to say that I had seen a Lady dressed in white. That was the first time.”
Taken from “Ecrits de Saint Bernadette“
2) February 14, 1858 (Sunday) – Holy water thrown at the Lady, 10 people present.
“The second time was the following Sunday. I went back because I felt myself interiorly impelled. My mother had forbidden me to go. After High Mass, the two other girls and myself went to ask my mother again. She did not want to let us go, she said that she was afraid that I should fall in the water; she was afraid that I would not be back for Vespers. I promised that I would. Then she gave me permission to go.”
“I went to the Parish Church to get a little bottle of holy water, to throw over the Vision, if I were to see her at the grotto. When we arrived, we all took our rosaries and we knelt down to say them. I had hardly finished the first decade when I saw the same Lady. Then I started to throw holy water in her direction, and at the same time I said that if she came from God she was to stay, but if not, she must go. She started to smile, and bowed; and the more I sprinkled her with holy water, the more she smiled and bowed her head and the more I saw her make signs. Then I was seized with fright and I hurried to sprinkle her with holy water until the bottle was empty. Then I went on saying my rosary. When I had finished it she disappeared and we came back to Vespers. This was the second time.”
3) February 18, 1858 (Thursday) – Day after Ash Wednesday, invitation for a “fortnight,” promise for happiness not in this world.
“The third time was the following Thursday. The Lady only spoke to me the third time. I went to the grotto with a few grown–ups, who advised me to take paper and ink, and to ask her, if she had anything to say to me, to have the goodness to put it on paper. I said these words to the Lady. She smiled and said that it was not necessary for her to write what she had to say to me, but asked if I would do her the favour of coming for a fortnight. I told her that I would. She told me also that she did not promise to make me happy in this world, but in the next.”
“I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next” … These words spoken by Mary to Bernadette at the third apparition on February 18, 1858 were a prophesy of Bernadette’s life. This was the promise in return for Bernadette’s total compliance with the will of the heavenly Mother.
The happiness promised to Bernadette was not only intended for life after death. It is a happiness experienced by all those who progress in the way of prayer; who go beyond prayerful words to the discovery of true Prayer. It was this experience that Bernadette came to discover as she knelt before Our Lady. She went beyond the mere recitation of the rosary to savor the deeper experience of a loving communion, “of a friend speaking to a friend.” There at the Grotto, Bernadette’s deeply prayerful experience silently touched the hearts of all who watched, and crowds began to form in ever greater numbers as the famous Fortnight of Apparitions progressed.
4) February 19, 1858 (Friday) – Very early in the morning, silence, 8 people present.
|Eight people were present, including Bernadette’s mother and her aunt Bernarde, who was her godmother. In spite of their natural fear, they found comfort in the calm happiness displayed by Bernadette throughout this fourth Apparition. Bernadette was armed with a candle for protection.|
“I came back for a fortnight. The vision appeared every day, except one Monday and one Friday. She repeated to me several times that I was to tell the priests they were to build a Chapel there, and I was to go to the fountain to wash, and that I was to pray for sinners. During this fortnight, she told me three secrets which she forbade me to tell anyone. I have been faithful until now.”
5) February 20, 1858 (Saturday) – About 6 am, personal prayer, 30 people present.
Thirty people were in attendance and returned to the village deeply moved and astonished at the extraordinary atmosphere of peace and joy that emanated from the poor little Grotto. Father Pene, the local parish curate, questioned Bernadette about the happiness she found at the Grotto. She answered “When I see her I feel as if I’m no longer of this world. And when the vision disappears I’m amazed to find myself still here.”
Over one hundred people had gathered. The police began to keep an eye on the place. They counted the crowd and were truly alarmed by the events. Jacomet, the Police Commissioner, sent for Bernadette, questioned her, threatened her, and finally obtained from François Soubirous, who had no desire to return to prison, the assurance that the whole business would cease. Bernadette’s sadness upset her family …”she is no liar”, said her mother.
7) February 23, 1858 (Tuesday) – Following no apparition on Monday, First miracle of the candle, conversion of Estrade, personal prayer.
In spite of the Police Commissioner, Bernadette was back again at the Grotto for the seventh Apparition. There was but a small gathering of people that included some of the leading villagers who had come out of curiosity and the desire to mock the gullibility of the “lower classes.” A certain Jean-Baptiste Estrade, a tax inspector with a rather aloof personality, was also present. He was sent by the parish priest Father Peyramale to find out what was going on. He and Duffo, the court official, with officers from the garrison and other eminent citizens, had come to witness this “Mardi Gras carnival” on the advice of the parish priest. But, instead of being shocked or scandalized, they were astonished and moved by the whole experience. The vision of Bernadette in prayer turned them into “believers and witnesses”.
8) February 24, 1858 (Wednesday) – Message of “Penance” for sinners, 250 people present.
250 people clustered around Bernadette taking up all the space between the River Gave and the rock of Massabielle. Sadness and tears stained the transfigured face of the visionary. The message given today was repeated at the Grotto and in the town: “PENANCE!”
“PRAY FOR THE CONVERSION OF SINNERS.”
And pray they did at Massabielle. People arrived earlier than ever. In the cold of winter, they were satisfied to be there, by the banks of the River Gave, to watch and pray.
The police recorded a crowd of more than 350. Hoping to witness something of her ecstasy, the crowd waited with eagerness for Bernadette’s arrival. Unlike the fine weather of previous days, this was a cold, miserable rainy day. It was out of the cold misty dawn that Bernadette finally appeared. She was seen to remove her hood, put her candle aside, walk towards the Gave, then turn, go down on her knees and finally crawl on all fours to the back of the Grotto, towards the left of the rock.
” (The Lady) told me that I should go and drink at the fountain and wash myself. Seeing no fountain I went to drink at the Gave. She said it was not there; she pointed with her finger that I was to go in under the rock. I went, and I found a puddle of water which was more like mud, and the quantity was so small that I could hardly gather a little in the hollow of my hand. Nevertheless I obeyed, and started scratching the ground; after doing that I was able to take some. The water was so dirty that three times I threw it away. The fourth time I was able to drink it. She made me eat grass growing in the same place where I had drunk; once only; I do not know why. Then the Vision disappeared and I went home.”
Bernadette rose from crawling in the mud at the Grotto. The crowd was surprised and shocked when she turned towards them. Her face was unrecognizable, smeared with mud, and chewing a tuft of grass pulled up from the ground. The surprise of the onlookers soon turned to resentment, sarcasm and anger. Some were horrified. Headlines in the next day’s newspapers angrily proclaimed that “the gullible have been well and truly had … Bernadette’s real place should be in the asylum.” On the day of the apparition, Bernadette’s Aunt Bernarde intervened, slapping Bernadette’s face and sending her off towards the Cachot. The standersby jeered as she passed.
“An unforgettably gloomy day” wrote Estrade, the tax inspector. He now had to suffer the taunts of his colleagues at the Café Français. Furious at having let themselves be dragged into this misadventure, they discovered that Bernadette was a “filthy little upstart.” The term was used throughout the town to conjure up the image of Bernadette covered with the mud of the pig–sty. The local authorities sensed the changed mood in the village and acted quickly. That same evening, Bernadette was summoned to appear before Dutour, the Imperial Public Prosecutor. He was the same man responsible for landing Bernadette’s father in prison.
For two long hours, Bernadette stood on her feet with her mother standing beside her. The fourteen–year–old girl endured a grilling interrogation. She was questioned, accused, and threatened with all kinds of insinuations. Finally, her mother, weakened with fear, fainted. The inspector persisted, but gave them chairs to sit down.
10) February 27, 1858 (Saturday) – Following no apparition on Feb. 26th, Monsieur Clarens, penitential exercises, same message and actions as on Feb. 24th, 800 people present.
11) February 28, 1858 (Sunday) – 1,150 people present, interrogation by Judge Ribes, Dutour, Jacomet.
12) March 1, 1858 (Monday) – Blessing of rosaries, 1,450 people.
Almost fifteen hundred people gathered. An astounding number of conversions were taking place, and the town parish was not certain what to make of it all. On this day, the first recognized miracle occurred. Catherine Latapie, nine months pregnant, walked 9 kilometers from her home in the neighboring village of Loubajac to bathe here paralyzed arm in the “healing” spring. Healed on the site, she returned home to immediately give birth to a son. Recognized in 1862 as the first approved miracle of Lourdes, her healing testified of the truth of the apparitions.
A visiting priest, Fr. Desirat, was standing next to Bernadette on this day:
“What struck me was the joy, the sadness reflected in Bernadette’s face … Respect, silence, recollection reigned everywhere. Oh it was good to be there It was like being at the gates of paradise.”
Fr. Desirat, Lourdes, March 1st, 1858
13) March 2, 1858 (Tuesday) – Call to the priests for a “procession and a chapel,” two visits to the parish priest Monsieur le Curé (Fr. Peyramale).
“Go and tell the priest to build a chapel here and to have people come in procession.” At the end of her ecstasy on this fifteenth apparition, Bernadette heard these words. The task would be a daunting one. Monsieur le Curé (Fr. Peyramale) was not an easy–going personality. He was also quite impatient with the grotto story. Bernadette was determined to convey the message, and accompanied by her two aunts for support, she found herself on the front steps of the presbytery. Turned away at first and called a liar by the furious priest, she and her aunts left quickly, but not before the priest forbade her from returning to the cave.
With bravery, Bernadette resolved to try again. Before the night was over, she was accompanied by a friend of the priest to deliver her message. Bernadette was questioned thoroughly in front of the entire parish clergy. Her task was accomplished.
14) March 3, 1858 (Wednesday) – In the evening, request for the bloom of the rose tree, the grotto explored, renewed request to build a chapel.
Fr Peyramale was left confused after Bernadette’s visit. The parish priests no longer could agree. Bernadette’s confessor, the prudent Fr. Pomian, was content to wait for further developments. Peyramale felt it was time to act. He went to Tarbes to pay a visit to the bishop, Msgr. Laurence. The bishop concluded that Peyramale should remain safely away from the grotto, although Peyramale had grown eager to inspect the location firsthand.
Bernadette was to return to Fr. Peyramale on three consecutive days to deliver her message. On March 3rd he gave her a cool reception. Thousands of people had flooded into Lourdes, several times the population, eagerly awaiting the last day of the fortnight (March 4th). Expectations of a spectacular sign had spread through the town. With the priest’s approval, a guard was posted at the grotto through the night. He responded to Bernadette,
“If the lady wants her chapel, let her tell you her name, and ask her to make the rosebush at the grotto flower”
15) March 4, 1858 (Thursday) – Last apparition of the fortnight, 10,000 people present, armed military escort, medical examination, to Fr. Peyramale.
Bernadette set out on what may have been her last meeting with the lady, the last day of the fortnight. She serenely made her way through a crowd of 10,000, and went into a rapture that lasted for well over an hour in an atmosphere of peace and fervour. The crowd was quiet. Afterwards, many who had came expecting to see wonders were disappointed. Bernadette returned deep in thought to Le Cachot. The crowd pressed against her, wanting to see and touch her. She repelled the crowd and refused money that people tried to slip into her hands. Her one desire was to see the priest once more.
“The third time I went to see M. le Curé, to tell him that a Lady had ordered me to go and say to the priests that they were to have a chapel built there, he looked at me for a moment, and then he said to me in a rather gruff tone, ‘Who is this lady?’ I answered that I did not know. Then he commissioned me to ask her name and to come and tell him. The next day when I arrived at the grotto I recited my rosary and then asked her, from M. le Curé what her name was, but all she did was to smile. When I got back I went to M. le Curé to tell him that I discharged his commission, and her only response was her smile; then he said she was laughing at me and that I would do well not to go to her again. But, I could not help going.”
Life rapidly returned to normal after the fortnight ended. Crowds continued to gather at the grotto, but Bernadette returned to school and was preparing for her first Communion. The priest, however, remained troubled. On March 18th, Bernadette was again subjected to a formal interrogation. Questioned by the authorities about the so–called miracles and her intentions, she claimed that she did not believe she had cured anyone. She was also submitted to repeated medical examinations to prove her sanity.
16) March 25, 1858 (Thursday) – Feast of the Annunciation, announcement of identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” apparition lasts 1 hour, to Fr. Peyramale.
Bernadette joyfully rejoined the lady in the grotto. It had been 3 weeks since she saw Aquero and had not known whether she would ever appear again. This time she was determined to obtain the lady’s name, so that she could finally tell the priest. Bernadette was characteristically stubborn, and she repeated four times the question she had practiced so often, “Would you be so kind as to tell me who you are?” The answer finally came: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
“I went every day for a fortnight, and each day I asked her who she was–and this petition always made her smile. After the fortnight I asked her three times consecutively. She always smiled. At last I tried for the fourth time. She stopped smiling. With her arms down, she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast she said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ Then I went back to M. le Curé to tell him that she had said she was the Immaculate Conception, and he asked was I absolutely certain. I said yes, and so as not to forget the words, I had repeated them all the way home.”
Bernadette planted a candle between two rocks as a gift, a sign of her prayer and the revelation, and then ran home. Running all the way, she repeated these strange words over and over so that she would not forget them. Of course the words were spoken in her native Bigourdan dialect and were completely unfamiliar, “que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.”
Fr. Peyramale said that a woman cannot have a name like that. “You are mistaken. Do you know what that means?” The priest was shaken, and unable to talk to Bernadette. He quickly sent her away, and she left without the privilege of understanding the meaning of the title. She was only told later that afternoon that the Blessed Mother carried that title.
“She could never have invented this … “ wrote Fr. Peyramale to the bishop that evening.
The Church declared that Mary was the “Immaculate Conception” only four years earlier in 1854. The title would certainly have been unknown to Bernadette since it was not broadly discussed in the liturgy, and Bernadette still could not read or write. She was only then learning her catechism to prepare for first Holy Communion, a task undertaken typically by children six or seven years her junior. It was her poor health and her family’s poverty that had hindered her education.
17) April 7, 1858 (Wednesday) – Easter week, second miracle of the candle, examination by Dr. Dozous, apparition lasts 1 hour.
Two more apparitions were to occur following Our Lady’s announcement that she was in fact the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of God. Lourdes was in a state of unrest. False visionaries and other troublemakers created a frenzy in the town. The Bishop finally intervened, denouncing such abuses. Civil authorities barricaded the grotto and prevented access. The barricades were repeatedly destroyed and re–erected. Meanwhile, Bernadette returned to a quieter life. After the seventeenth apparition, the Soubirous finally left the Cachot. With no knowledge that she would ever see the Virgin Mary again, Bernadette went on to receive her first Holy Communion on June 3rd. She was indeed the first to live the message of penance, receiving visitors tirelessly and repeating the events over and over. This wore greatly on her health and hindered her education.
Three days after Easter, Bernadette again felt the inner call to the grotto. She arrived with a candle in hand. Already gathered, the regular daily crowd fell silent as Bernadette immediately went into a rapture. All was quiet until Dr. Dozous pushed noisily through the crowd to be at the visionary’s side. He had always been a skeptic, and now arrived “in the name of science.”
The large candle that Bernadette was holding burned down until she was barely holding a wick. Dr. Dozous observed the flames licking at Bernadette’s fingers for a full ten minutes. When the ecstasy was over, he examined her fingers, which had not been harmed or affected in any way. Bernadette had not felt the flames at all. From that moment, Dr. Dozous became an ardent supporter of the apparitions and an important witness. He returned immediately to Commissioner Jacomet’s office to have the account recorded in writing.
“Bernadette seemed to be even more absorbed than usual in the Appearance upon which her gaze was riveted. I witnessed, as did also every one else there present, the fact which I am about to narrate.
She was on her knees saying with fervent devotion the prayers of her Rosary which she held in her left hand while in her right was a large blessed candle, alight. The child was just beginning to make the usual ascent on her knees when suddenly she stopped and, her right hand joining her left, the flame of the big candle passed between the fingers of the latter. Though fanned by a fairly strong breeze, the flame produced no effect upon the skin which it was touching. Astonished at this strange fact, I forbade anyone there to interfere, and taking my watch in my hand, I studied the phenomenon attentively for a quarter of an hour. At the end of this time Bernadette, still in her ecstasy, advanced to the upper part of the Grotto, separating her hands. The flame thus ceased to touch her left hand.
Bernadette finished her prayer and the splendour of the transfiguration left her face. She rose and was about to quit the Grotto when I asked her to show me her left hand. I examined it most carefully, but could not find the least trace of burning anywhere upon it. I then asked the person who was holding the candle to light it again and give it to me. I put it several times in succession under Bernadette’s left hand but she drew it away quickly, saying ‘You are burning me!’. I record this fact just as I have seen it without attempting to explain it. Many persons who were present at the time can confirm what I have said.”
18) July 16, 1858 (Friday) – 8 pm on Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Bernadette sees Our Lady “more beautiful than ever” from the far bank of the Gave River.
|Obedient to the Bishop and the restrictions of the civil authorities, Bernadette was living peacefully far from the turbulence. On the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she was drawn one final time to Massabielle. The grotto was now blockaded. Bernadette’s irresistible call led her across the Gave River to the far side of the meadow.|
“I thought I was at the Grotto, at the same distance as I was the other times. All I saw was Our Lady … She was more beautiful than ever.”
At 8pm Bernadette and the Virgin Mary silently made their final goodbyes amidst a still crowd. She had seen Our Lady from a few hundred yards across the river, and yet she felt as if Mary was right before her.
New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.
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- Reflection: OUR LADY OF LOURDES, FEAST DAY – FEBRUARY 11 (deaconjohn1987.wordpress.com)
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