Today, February 11th, the universal Church honors Our Lady of Lourdes, the most beautiful Blessed Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in a particular and special appearance she made in 19th century France.
On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, born January 7, 1844, the oldest of a family of six, went with her sisters, Toinette and Jeanne to obtain firewood. They took off their shoes and socks so that they could wade through the water which was near the Grotto of Massabielle. But the sisters wanted Bernadette to stay behind, because she suffered from asthma and/or other respiratory problems, and they did not want her to catch a cold. Nevertheless, Bernadette desired to go with them and began to take off her shoes and socks. Whilst she performed this little activity, she heard gusts of wind, but she also noticed that the trees and plants were not moving. She noticed, however, a little wild rose move. She went to look at it and observed the niche it was in; from that niche she saw “a dazzling light, and a white figure.” This figure was dressed in white, with the exception of a blue sash around her waist and two golden yellow roses, one on each of her feet, which was also the color of her rosary. Bernadette told her sisters about this vision and asked them to keep it a secret. But Toinette could not; hence, she told her mother.
Three days later, Bernadette went back to the Grotto, bringing holy water to make sure that the person she saw was a holy person, and not any other kind of entity. The lady appeared and Bernadette caste the holy water at her, wherein the lady inclined her head gratefully when the water was cast. Bernadette told the figure that if she was from God, that she must stay, and that if she was evil, she must leave. The lady stayed.
On February 18th, Bernadette saw the lady and she was told by her to return to the Grotto over a period of two weeks. The lady said to her, “I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the next.”
Word spread of Bernadette’s vision. But Bernadette’s parents ordered her not to go to the Grotto again. She disobeyed and went anyway, and on February 24th, the lady asked Bernadette for people to pray and do penance for the conversion of sinners. The next day, the lady asked Bernadette to dig in the ground and drink from the spring that would develop there. The people who watched Bernadette noticed that she became dirty and disheveled, which disappointed them. But from that spot, came a stream that soon became a focal point for pilgrimages. The muddy stream became clean, and the water from that stream was given to medical patients with varying health issues, and numerous reports of miraculous cures followed.
Indeed and in fact, in 1860, Professor Verges confirmed that seven of these cures lacked any medical explanation. Nevertheless, the local government there took issue with this Grotto, and issued stiff fines for anyone who tried to get near it. Soon, Lourdes was known all throughout France. Napoleon III, emperor of France, intervened and on October 4, 1858, issued an order to reopen the Grotto.
Bernadette being a brave and persistent person, visited the Grotto even while it was barricaded at night. On that night, March 25th, she asked the lady who she was; the lady told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
On July 16th, Bernadette went to the Grotto for the last time. Because of the notoriety of the Grotto, on November 17, 1858, the Catholic Church investigated the matter through a commission. On January 18, 1862, Bishop Laurence, the Bishop of Tarbes, issued a declaration:
“We are inspired by the Commission comprising wise, holy, learned and experienced priests who questioned the child, studied the facts, examined everything and weighed all the evidence. We have also called on science, and we remain convinced that the Apparitions are supernatural and divine, and that by consequence, what Bernadette saw was the Most Blessed Virgin. Our convictions are based on the testimony of Bernadette, but above all on the things that have happened, things which can be nothing other than divine intervention.”
In 1863, a sculptor, Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, was commissioned to make a statue of the Virgin according to Bernadette’s description. His work was placed in the Grotto and solemnly dedicated on April 4, 1864, with approximately 20,000 pilgrims present.
Because Bernadette’s apparitions were her private ones, not public revelations, Catholics are not required to believe in Our Lady of Lourdes. The apparitions do not add any additional truths to the truths of Catholicism; the Church states that God chooses whom he wants cured, and whom he does not, and by what means. Bernadette said that, “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.”
Lourdes is a place of pilgrimage, a place of healing, a place of spiritual growth. Church authorities recognize 60 miraculous cures, which have undergone scrupulous investigation by scientists, including physicians and specialists who examined the pertinent patients. But most probably there have been many more healings, including physical and spiritual healings. Lourdes is a continuation of Jesus’ healing miracles performed at Lourdes through the intercession of His mother. There are people, of course, who do not believe in Lourdes and doubt its authenticity. What can be said to them comes from the wonderful movie, The Song of Bernadette: ”For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”
Bernadette died on April 16, 1879, as she was 35 years of age. In 1933, she was canonized a saint.
The following prayer is said as an act of consecration to Our Lady of Lourdes:
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, Virgin Immaculate, you appeared 18 times to Bernadette at the grotto in Lourdes to remind Christians of what the truths in the Gospel require of them. You call them to prayer, penance, the Eucharist and the life of the church. To answer your call more fully, I dedicate myself, through you, to your Son Jesus. Make me willing to accept what He said. By the fervor of my faith, by the conduct of my life in all its aspects, by my devotion to the sick, let me work with you in the comforting of those who suffer and in the reconciliation of people that the church may be one and there be peace in the world. All this I ask, confident that you, Our Lady, will fully answer my prayer. Blessed be the Holy and Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.”
Finally, I will conclude with a prayer said by Pope John Paul II:
“. . .Under your protection we seek refuge, Immaculate Virgin of Lourdes, who present yourself to us as the perfect model of creation according to God’s original plan. To you we entrust the sick, the elderly, the lonely: soothe their pain, dry their tears and obtain for each one the strength they need to do God’s will. May you support those who toil every day to alleviate the sufferings of their brethren! And help us all to grow in the knowledge of Christ, who by his death and Resurrection defeated the powers of evil and death.”
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. St. Bernadette, pray for us!
With love and respect,
Sources: Vatican website; Saint of the Day, edited by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.; Lives of the Saints, edited by Michael Walsh