THE HEALING WATERS OF LOURDES
Our Lady appeared in Lourdes to confirm the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This year we acknowledge the 150th anniversary of that decree. Over the past 146 years Lourdes has become the most famous Marian Shrine where millions flock for healing of body and soul. Seldom has Our Lady disappointed if a person's heart was true. Such are the healing waters of Lourdes.
"When Bernadette Soubirous arrived at the grotto on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, she witnessed the Lady coming from the recesses of the place. Again Bernadette asked the Lady to identify herself. This time the vision stopped smiling. The Lady joined her hands in prayer, and raised her eyes to Heaven. "I am the Immaculate Conception," she told Bernadette."
On Monday, February 22 Bernadette obediently asked permission of her parents to return to the grotto. Knowing the state of mind of Jacomet, both Louise and Francois refused. Bernadette suffered dreadfully, knowing she had promised the beautiful Lady, but knowing she dare not disobey her own parents. Yet by afternoon the supernatural pull toward the grotto overwhelmed her. She went...but no vision occurred. She wept bitterly and went to confession that evening, only to find consolation from Father Pomian who told her that the people had no right to stop her. The next afternoon at five-thirty Bernadette was on her way to the grotto. She was at peace interiorly about this whole affair. But there were already spectators there, among them notable doctors, lawyers and Jean-Baptiste Estrade, the excise tax officer.
Bernadette again had a vision, but another silent one. But the following day, Wednesday, February 24, brought something new. The Lady spoke again to Bernadette. She said: "Penitence. Pray to God for the conversion of sinners." And then she asked Bernadette to kiss the ground as a gesture of penance for others. February 25, Thursday, saw a repeat of this gesture of penitence. Then Bernadette began moving while on her knees, as if being directed by someone no one else could see, much less hear. Finally, Bernadette reached the spot where she was meant to be. With hundreds of townspeople looking on, the frail Soubirous girl began to dig with her hands. She scraped up the muddy muck that stuck to her hands and fingers. As she put her hands to her mouth to drink it, the crowd could not help but murmur in shock and amazement.
Only Bernadette heard the Lady say: "Go and drink at the fount and wash yourself." Many in the crowd of spectators were convinced now that Bernadette was crazy. After "drinking" the mud, Bernadette began to eat bits of a plant called dorine. This was just too much for many in the crowd. The Soubirous girl was indeed mad! But again, Bernadette was obedient to the Heavenly Visitor who told her: "You will eat of that plant which is there." All this she did, Bernadette was to relate later, was "for sinners." If Bernadette had found the mud and plants hard to eat, the townspeople had an even harder time accepting her actions on behalf of "sinners." She was again forbidden to go to the grotto, this time the ban coming from the police commissioner. But it was Bernadette's aunt, Bernarde, who convinced her to go.
Where Bernadette had dug with her hands in the mud and drank it, there now was a trickle of water bubbling up, and a small pool of water had formed. By the time Bernadette arrived, over 600 people were there, waiting for the young "visionary." But there was no apparition. Bernadette was demoralized, wondering what she had done to offend the lovely Lady. But on Saturday, February 27, the Lady was back. The next day, Sunday, saw an enormous crowd of 1200 people sandwiched into the space near the grotto. Seeing only the practical ramification of too many people in a narrow spot where there was a deep drop into the Gave River below, the police grabbed Bernadette again and hauled her away for questioning. Bernadette was strong. She resisted their threats, stating she would return to the grotto until the following Thursday as she had promised.
On Monday, March 1, the sunlight dawned on hundreds of eager faces who waited at the grotto. Among the people was Catherine Latapie, a mother of two small children. Catherine was expecting her third arrival at any time. Nearly two years previously she had fallen and broken her arm. The fall and broken arm left her with two fingers of her right hand paralyzed. All saw Bernadette sink into a state of ecstasy. After Bernadette had withdrawn, Catherine quietly went to the spring and there she plunged her right hand into the waters. At once a warmth flowed through her entire arm, giving her a sense of peace. When she withdrew her arm, her fingers, which had been doubled up, were completely straightened.
The excitement Catherine felt brought on labor pains. She immediately appealed to the Virgin she believed had given her a healing. And the prayer was answered. Hours later, four miles back to the village of Loubajac, she gave birth to a boy, who would go on to become a priest! Catherine was the first of millions who would be healed in the miraculous, healing waters of Lourdes.
On Tuesday March 2, over 1600 people were present at the apparition. All remained in reverent silence while Bernadette conversed with the Lady, until the young visionary rose from her knees and turned to face the people. "Go and tell the priests that people must come here in procession and that a chapel [must] be built here." Bernadette went straight to the parish priest, who was in a delicate position. He, himself, believed that Bernadette was privileged to see the Mother of God. But the Church had made no pronouncement, and he knew well that the sentiment among the authorities was that Bernadette was given to flights of fancy, to put it mildly. His frustration caused him to storm at Bernadette. Undaunted, though hurt by his anger, Bernadette heard his request that she ask the Lady to identify herself. Bernadette promised to do so. Thus on Wednesday March 3, the Lady came again to the grotto. Bernadette obediently put the question to the Lady, "who only smiled." Thursday came - the last day of the fortnight of visits which Bernadette had promised the Lady she would keep and again Bernadette asked for a sign for the priest to believe. But once again the Lady was not inclined to grant the request, and only smiled.
Now disappointment was rampant in Lourdes. But there were those whose faith would not yield to popular demand, and they persisted that the young Soubirous girl had seen the Virgin Mary. Thus, on the Feast of Annunciation, March 25, 1858, Bernadette awoke with a strong pull to return to the grotto. When she returned this time Our Lady would impart something so profound to an ignorant girl who had no true concept of what she was told that it peaked the interest of the hierarchy and swung the pendulum of believers.
When Bernadette Soubirous arrived at the grotto on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, she witnessed the Lady coming from the recesses of the place. Again Bernadette asked the Lady to identify herself. This time the vision stopped smiling. The Lady joined her hands in prayer, and raised her eyes to Heaven. "I am the Immaculate Conception," she told Bernadette.
With gratitude Bernadette thanked her. When she was able, she relayed the answer to the parish priest who was truly moved. The feeling he had within all along that this was truly of God seemed confirmed. Only four years earlier the Church had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with the words: "We define that the Blessed Virgin was preserved from every taint of original sin...from the first moment of her conception." An uneducated girl, Bernadette came to understand the meaning of the Lady's answer only later that evening which finally turned her joy into endless bounds. Yes, this Lady was the Mother of God.
Again on April 7, the Wednesday after Easter, Bernadette was pulled back to the grotto. She immediately fell into an ecstatic state. A medical doctor Dr. Dozous was on hand, determined to examine this state she was in, to prove that it was false...if he could. He couldn't for before he could get close enough to examine Bernadette, there was a loud cry from the huge crowd mulling around the area in anticipation. Bernadette knelt, holding the top of a candle placed upon the ground in front of her. Her wrists braced the candle, and her fingers were laced above the wick. Yet the flames licked up and into the girl's unprotected hands and fingers. But there was no look of pain on Bernadette's face; only the ecstasy of joy. When later Dr. Dozous examined Bernadette carefully, searching for burns, he discovered none!
The months of May and June that year were chaos for Lourdes a zealous people began to build a chapel to the Lady who had so graced their humble village through the even more humble peasant girl Bernadette. It wasn't until July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, that Bernadette felt compelled to return to the grotto. She waited until dark, but still several hundred people were awaiting her. Bernadette knelt down, holding a candle in her hands.
The girl began to pray the Rosary, and soon a smile of surprise lit up her entire countenance. Even though now she was much further from the grotto than she had been before, she later related: "It seemed to me that I was in the grotto, no more distant than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin."
No words were spoken, but through the interior knowledge mystically imparted, Bernadette realized this was her last vision of Our Lady. There had been eighteen visions in all. Because of the constant attention and clamoring of the crowds of locals as well as visitors from all over France and Europe, Bernadette moved to the Lourdes hospice and school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Nevers. There Bernadette lived and studied until, on April 4, 1864, at the age of 20, she made a firm decision to join the Sisters of Nevers near Paris. On July 4, 1866 she left her beloved Lourdes by train enroute for Paris.
Already a sizeable chapel stood at Massabielle. Bernadette's feelings about this last visit to the beloved grotto where our Heavenly Mother had graciously visited her were never made known. When Bernadette arrived at the convent on Sunday, July 8, 1866, she was asked for the first and last time to speak of the apparitions. All the nuns gathered to hear her. But the following day, Bernadette, now 22, began a life of silence, prayer and anonymity. She was given the name Sister Marie-Bernard and assigned to work among the sick. Her own health became even more precarious. So much so that she made her religious profession earlier than the others, taking her vows on October 25, 1866.
Through the grace of God she survived death, but her health was a factor for the next 13 years. At the age of 29 she realized and struggled with the knowledge that she was of no practical use to the work of the community whatsoever; that's how sick she had become. In December 1878, Bernadette's health failed for the last time at the age of 34. Less than six months later, on April 16, 1879 this small woman who stood only 4' 8" tall, breathed her last. She died at Nevers never having returned to Lourdes.
To this day Bernadette's body lies in state in the convent chapel at Nevers...miraculously preserved! Holy Mother Church did not take long to consider the holiness of Bernadette. It was fittingly on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1933 that Pope Pius XI capped the Holy Year by canonizing Bernadette.
But confirmation by the Church of the apparitions of Lourdes as worthy of belief came much more quickly. On January 18, 1862, less than four years after the visions and while Bernadette was still a student at the School of Notre Dame de Nevers in Lourdes, the bishop of the Diocese of Tarbes released the letter commending devotion to Lourdes as a Marian site worthy of belief.
February 11, 2004
vol 15, no. 42
The Sanity of Sanctity