Our Lady of Lourdes Part II

February 11 was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This is the final part of 2 reflections on the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette in 1858. It is by Ellyn Von Huben of Word on Fire

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PART II: 10 Things to Know About Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette




Bernadette is a favorite when young ladies choose their confirmation names. And girls certainly do love watching the film “The Song of Bernadette”. (Winner of the very first Golden Globe award for best motion picture, by the way!) I wouldn’t say that watching this movie was the thing that led to my conversion …but it sure didn’t hurt! Our Lady did not appear at Lourdes just to touch the hearts of tween girls through the ages. There is, indeed, much that speaks to the heart of the young girl. But anyone, of any age or gender can find in Bernadette a story that will resonate truth within their hearts. The appearance of Our Lady at Lourdes was not just for Bernadette – it could be heard by all; a sign for all pointing to Our Lady’s son, Jesus Christ. 


Much is discussed on Catholic internet sites about the state of modern catechesis and how it should be improved. St. Bernadette could be called a product of poor, minimal catechesis. But Bernadette started her faith life the best way possible – whether for a provincial child of the 1850s or a very modern, prosperous young person. She was the product of a strong “domestic Church”. She had the minimal schooling of a poor girl of her time, compounded by missing lessons due to ill health and that she was needed at home to help care for siblings.


To the chagrin of the Sister preparing her for her First Holy Communion, Bernadette was a technically abysmal Catechism student. But she received the most important preparation – that can hardly be replicated in a classroom – being raised in a family whose greatest riches were their faith. There is profound understanding in this heart which would one day write, "I was nothing, and of this nothing God made something great. In Holy Communion I am heart to heart with Jesus. How sublime is my destiny." Her lack of schooling made her testimony of the apparitions all the more believable. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been defined by Pope Pius IX just 4 years before Bernadette’s visions. The quote “I am the Immaculate Conception” coming from the lips of a young, rural girl possessing minimal scholarship had an indisputable veracity. 


The appearance of Our Lady to Bernadette is private revelation and adds nothing to the public deposit of faith – and so no Catholic is obligated to believe. The millions of believers, Catholic and non-Catholic, who visit Lourdes each year are, though, a testimony to the fact that those who do not believe in Our Lady’s appearance at Lourdes must be something of a minority. 


A variety of authors wrote about St. Bernadette and the apparitions at Lourdes. But 20th century cultural popularity of St. Bernadette owes much to “The Song of Bernadette” and its author. Franz Werfel, a Jewish German writer found himself in Lourdes while trying to escape to Portugal after France fell to the Nazis. Families who took in Werfel and his wife told them the story of Bernadette. Werfel vowed if they should escape, he would write the story of St. Bernadette. True to his promise, his first task when arriving in America was to write the beautiful work of historical fiction (more historical than fiction), The Song of Bernadette. An interesting bit of trivia: the structure of this bestseller is itself a reference to the holy rosary – five sections of ten chapters each. 


Lourdes has had a special place in the hearts of many popes…. St. John Paul II made three pilgrimages to Lourdes. He also proclaimed February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as World Day of the Sick. Lourdes and St. Bernadette also figure prominently in the life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was born on St. Bernadette’s feast day of April 16 in 1927. In his Angelus address on the first Sunday of Lent in 2008 – the 150th anniversary of Mary’s first appearance – the Holy Father reminded us that, “The message Our Lady continues to spread in Lourdes recalls the words Jesus spoke at the beginning of his public mission, which we hear several times during these days of Lent: 'Repent, and believe in the Gospel,' pray and do penance. Let us accept Mary's invitation which echoes Christ's and ask her to obtain for us that we may 'enter' Lent with faith, to live this season of grace with inner joy and generous commitment ….It was on February 11 of last year (2013) that he took the unprecedented (in modern times) step of announcing his stepping down from the papacy. 


Those looking for lessons in humility (shouldn’t we all?) can find many examples in Bernadette, and from her humble, devout family, to Church and civic officials, to her teacher – who learned her lesson rather late – there is food for contemplation in the stories of those who surrounded the young saint. Be they actual persons or fictionalized composites, they are studies in growth in humility. 


The spring at Lourdes was uncovered by Bernadette at the command of Our Lady, who asked her to drink of the as-yet-unseen spring and wash in it. Since then, millions have imbibed and bathed in the water of Lourdes. Early on, some entrepreneurial sorts had hoped to find particular properties in the water which could turn Lourdes into a popular spa destination. But the water was found to be only pure and potable. Faith is the ‘secret’ ingredient. As Bernadette said, “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.” 


Never in good health, Bernadette suffered greatly, and with silent good nature, in the final years of her life. She held fast to Our Lady’s promise that she wasn’t promised “happiness in this world, but in the next.” When she was 22, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She was content to be apart from public life, regarding herself as a tool, such as a broom, which had served its purpose and then “the broom placed behind the door once it has been used.” The teacher who had been harsh to her in her student years was to be her novice mistress and as harsh to the young sister as she had been to the student. It was not until this nun realized the sanctity with which Bernadette was bearing her final affliction of tuberculosis of the bone that she realized what a truly holy young woman she had been privileged to teach and guide. Despite her agony, Bernadette declined the opportunity to revisit Lourdes in search for a miraculous cure. 


Pope Saint Pius X established the Lourdes Medical Bureau to investigate cases of medical miracles. This Bureau is a medical institution not under Church supervision. Over 7,000 people have asked to have their cases declared as miraculous cures, yet fewer than 70 have been signed off on by both the Church and the Lourdes Medical Bureau as being cures with no scientific explanation. Because this system for rigorous investigation was established early and openly, verified miracles from Lourdes are considered the most reliable and least controversial. 


If you are suffering or merely curious, a pilgrimage to Lourdes may be just what you are looking for. Volunteers of all sorts, not only medical professionals, are needed to help in a variety of ways, including helping the sick prepare for their opportunity to bathe in the water of Lourdes. A week of time given in love brings its own miraculous gift to the hearts of those who spend time with the ‘malades’ on their pilgrimages.


Heart, Soul and Mind

Monsignor Royal's weekly column as featured in our bulletin.


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