by Jim Dunning
(This article was originally published in "Irelands Own" magazine. The webmaster would like to gratefully thank the author, Jim Dunning, for his kind permission in reprinting it here.)
February 11, 2008, marked exactly 150 years since the first apparition took place at the foot of a hill called Massabielle, near the small town of Lourdes in France. Bernadette Soubirous, aged fourteen, was out with her younger sister and a friend looking for firewood to sell in exchange for bread. Her two companions waded across a stream and left her taking off her shoes and stockings. Suddenly, she saw a figure in the opening of a grotto. It looked to her like a beautiful young lady of fifteen or sixteen, surrounded by light and holding a rosary. Instinctively, Bernadette pulled out her own rosary and began to pray. When she finished her prayers the Lady bowed, smiled at her and disappeared.
On the way home Bernadette asked her companions whether they had seen anything. They had seen nothing, but her sister, Toinette, pressed her to tell them what she had seen. Reluctantly, she admitted seeing a beautiful young lady dressed in white, with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot. When Toinette told her mother they were both punished and Bernadette was forbidden to return to the cave.
On the Saturday, Bernadette went to confession and told Abbé Pomian what she had witnessed. He merely advised her to wait and see. When word got around, however, local children urged Bernadette to go back to Massabielle. Her father agreed, but told her to be quick.
Back at the Grotto Bernadette knelt down and started to say the rosary. She had barely finished one decade when she exclaimed: ‘Look – the light. She’s there!’
The other children could see nothing. Bernadette got to her feet and sprinkled holy water all round the wild rose bush in front of her, saying, ‘If you come from God, stay. If not, go away.’ The Lady smiled, bowing her head. Bernadette went into a trance and could not be moved. An adult was fetched who finally managed to get her away. When asked what she saw, she said: ‘I see a lovely young lady with a rosary on her arm.’
Bernadette habitually referred to the Lady as “Aquero”, meaning “that one”. At the request of two ladies, she asked Aquero to write down her name. The Lady laughed and said: ‘That is not necessary’, adding ‘Will you do me the favour of coming here every day for a fortnight?’ ‘If my parents will let me,’ she answered. She was then told: ‘I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but I will in the next.’
On 21st February the police became involved because rumours spreading around were creating an atmosphere of excitement. An Inspector Jacomet asked Bernadette to promise not to go back to the grotto. ‘Monsieur, I have promised the Lady to go back.’ The next day, after being forbidden to return by both her parents, she felt an overwhelming urge to go to the grotto and skipped school in order to do so. But the Lady didn’t appear, and she was distraught. ‘How have I failed her?’ Clearly, the Lady disapproved of her disobedience.
On 23rd February, after her parents had relented, Bernadette ran back to Massabielle and was again favoured with a vision. A woman watching Bernadette wrote: ‘Her face was transfigured by an expression of joy, happiness and delight.’
Another pinched her and pricked her shoulder with a hatpin, but the girl did not even flinch. A candle she was holding appeared to burn her finger, but subsequently there was no trace of blistering.
The next day, Bernadette was seen walking on her knees to the back of the cave,
continually kissing the ground, explaining later that "Aquero" [The Lady] had said: ‘Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground in penance.’
The following day Bernadette was observed stooping over a muddy patch of earth, scraping at it until water appeared. She drank from it, muddying her face so that she looked revolting. She was led away and the watching crowd, indignant at the spectacle, left in disgust. The Lady had told her: ‘Go to the spring and drink and wash.’ That afternoon people returning to the cave found a small spring and filled bottles with water to take home.
The daily visions continued. On 2nd March Bernadette was given a message for the clergy. The Lady asked for a procession to take place and for a chapel to be built on the site. Advised of this, the Curé (parish priest), Abbé Peyramale, who terrified everyone, including Bernadette, insisted scornfully that she should ask this Lady what her name was.
When Bernadette conveyed this message she received only a smile. When told, the Curé commented: ‘If she wants the chapel, let her tell you her name and make the wild rose flower at the grotto.’ On 4th March a crowd of three to four thousand assembled at the grotto, believing that this would be the occasion of the last apparition. They half expected to see the rose flower. They were disappointed. Bernadette received no vision that morning and everyone left. But Bernadette was persuaded to return at lunchtime and saw her vision once again. It seemed Aquero had been upset by the improper behaviour of certain people in the cave the previous night.
On 25th March Bernadette felt the familiar irresistible urge to go to the grotto. Aquero appeared immediately and stayed for an hour. After being asked her name four times, she looked up to heaven and said simply: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ It meant nothing to Bernadette who went straight back to the Curé’s house with her aunt, repeating the words to herself lest she forget them. When they burst in on him she told him: ‘She said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”’ The Curé was speechless and sent her home. He was later to become her staunchest ally.
When word got round, the people of Lourdes were not surprised, having believed all along that it was the Blessed Virgin appearing at the grotto. The authorities were still not sure what to do. Visitors to the grotto were turning it into a shrine and official action was set in motion to close it down to the public. Claims of cures were made by the relatives of those who had bathed in the spring.
On 7th April Bernadette returned to Massabielle and once again spoke with the Lady. A local doctor, known to be a sceptic, witnessed her hands being exposed to the flame of the large candle she was holding, and was amazed to find no trace of scorching. ‘Now I believe,’ he said.
The grotto was closed, but barriers erected were repeatedly torn down by the townsfolk. On 16th July Bernadette visited an area close to the grotto and saw Our Lady for the last time. Aquero said nothing but appeared more beautiful than ever. It was the eighteenth apparition.
In September the Emperor himself gave orders that the grotto should reopen. An Episcopal Commission was set up to investigate events at Lourdes and claims of cures.
As for Bernadette, in 1866 she entered the mother-house of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers. Her life and death there provide another story...
-St Bernadette, pray for us!
Click here for part 2 of St Bernadette of Lourdes