By CAROLE BRESLIN
Throughout the history of mankind, God has chosen the lesser person to be His messenger, prophet, or king. He chose, Moses, the stutterer, to lead the Jewish people out of the slavery of the Egyptians. He chose Ruth, the pagan Moabite, to be an ancestor of Jesus. He chose King David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to be the King of Israel. He chose the undiplomatic Peter to be the head of the apostles and He also chose Bernadette to receive the miraculous events of the grotto in Lourdes, France.
Bernadette came from a family so poor that they lived in a damp, dark dungeon that was not even used as a jail anymore because of its deplorable condition. She had asthma which was exacerbated by the conditions of their “home.” Bernadette did not have anything that would be considered an advantage, except perhaps her humility and inner beauty. Her intelligence was so lacking that she was unable to receive her First Holy Communion because she could not remember her catechism. Poor, unhealthy, uneducated, she was rejected by the “better” people in her small village.
Yet it was to this young lady that Our Blessed Mother Mary appeared in 1858. At this time the family with nine children — of whom Bernadette was the eldest — had lost all its means of support. The cholera epidemic had afflicted the family and weakened further the health of young Bernadette.
She was only 14 at the time of the first apparition which took place on February 11, 1858, soon after Pope Pius IX had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854.
On that auspicious day in February, Bernadette went out with her sister, Marie, and a friend to gather firewood. Because of her frail health, Bernadette held back when Marie and the other girl crossed the stream where more kindling was easily found. Bernadette searched for a place to cross where she would not get wet, but unable to find one, she sat to remove her shoes and stockings.
She sat near a natural grotto, almost cave-like, in the place commonly used by the villagers to dump their refuse. Although she heard a rush of wind, she saw that nothing was moving except a beautiful rose in the grotto. Then a bright light appeared with a young and most beautiful lady. Neither Marie nor the other girl saw or heard anything.
Young Bernadette was insistent that she did see the lady. Much to the dismay of Bernadette, word spread quickly of the vision, bringing many pilgrims to also witness this marvel. Three days after the first vision Bernadette returned, on a Sunday, and prayed, falling into a trance when our Lady appeared to her again.
Again on February 18 — now the Church feast day for St. Bernadette — Mary appeared to her and requested that Bernadette come each day for the next two weeks which have become known as the Holy Fortnight. Although her mother tried desperately to keep her from returning to the grotto, although the anticlerical civil authorities threatened her, and although even the priest was skeptical, Bernadette remained not only calm and consistent in the interrogations but also determined in her obedience to the lady’s request.
On February 24 Bernadette fell to the ground during her visit. There she began to pluck the herbs and rub mud on her face as an act of penance requested by our Lady. This tipped the scales for those who claimed up until this time that Bernadette was not a visionary, but someone who had a mental illness and should be put in an asylum. Those who followed her to also see a vision were disappointed in such behavior and seemingly the marvels were at an end. Such behavior could not be from God, they reasoned.
But God’s ways are not man’s ways. The next day where Bernadette had knelt in obedient homage, a spring of clear water flowed from the ground. Believing it to be miraculous, some came to bathe in the waters, hoping for cures. They were not disappointed. Bernadette’s supporters were vindicated.
Once again, such a groundswell of faith and joy would be suppressed by the government and the enemies of the Church. Bernadette did nothing to spread news about her visions. In fact, only out of obedience did she receive visitors and answer their questions — a cross indeed for the retiring child. The local authorities tried to build barricades to keep people from going to the grotto. However, the emperor’s wife interceded and the people once again were allowed to go to the springs.
On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette had the 16th vision when our Lady finally told Bernadette her name: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Note that Bernadette, though pious, did not know her catechism. Certainly she did not know about the proclamation of the Pope on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This name could have come to Bernadette from none other than the Mother of God herself.
Bernadette took no money and sought no fame. At the age of 22 she joined the Sisters of Charity in Nevers where she remained for the rest of her life. She was questioned again and again about the visions she had received. Time and time again she gave the account, never varying in any way the details of the words spoken by Mary, nor in the description of the clothes she wore.
She served the nuns in several ways that did not require heavy labor. It was not long before she contracted yet another illness that caused her great pain. Yet she suffered in silence. The tuberculosis that she had caught settled in her knee. Doctors were dumfounded that Bernadette had never complained about this, since it was something that would have undoubtedly caused excruciating pain. She died on April 16, 1879 at the age of 35.
Bernadette never claimed special privileges regarding the grotto. She passed on Mary’s request for a chapel to be built and did not even attend the consecration of the basilica made in 1876.
During World War II, Franz Werfel, a Jewish fugitive from the Nazis, stopped in Lourdes where the people hid him and his wife. Because of this great act of charity, he vowed to write a book about Bernadette. This wonderful account, The Song of Bernadette, eventually was made into the movie by the same name.
Dear St. Bernadette, your humility and spirit of poverty, your act of obedience and penance, brought such a great gift to the world. By your loving example may we, too, be brought to acts of humble obedience, willful acts of penance, and a loving embrace of the cross through the intercession of Mary, the Immaculate Conception. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)