The Apparitions at Lourdes

February 11 is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. So for two weekends, we’ll offer some details and reflections on the Virgin Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette which began on February 11th, 1858. This first section is taken from the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations’ website

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We call the “Message of Lourdes” the gestures and words that exchanged between the Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous, at the Grotto of Massabielle, during the time of the 18 apparitions…..

Lourdes in the 19th century was one of the central places in the district with over 4,000 inhabitants including nobles, notaries, advocates, doctors, officers as well as manual workers….Mills were plentiful; many were dotted around the outside of the town, along one of the streams that flowed into the Gave – the Lapacca. Bernadette Soubirous was born in one of these, the Boly Mill, on January 7, 1844. Her bankrupt family was living in the Cachot.

On February 11, 1858, Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend, Jeanne, went looking for wood, and came to “the place where the canal rejoins the River Gave”. They were at the Grotto of Massabielle. Toinette and Jeanne crossed the icy water, crying out with the cold; Bernadette hesitated to do this because of her chronic asthma. She heard “a noise like a gust of wind,” but “none of the trees were moving.” Raising her head, she saw, in a hollow of the rock a young lady, who looked at her and who smiled at her. This was the 1st Apparition of Mary.

In Bernadette’s time, the Grotto was a dirty, hidden, damp, cold place. It was called the “pigs’ shelter” because it was where the pigs usually sheltered. It was there that the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, a sign of purity, the sign of the Love of God, in other words, the sign of what God wishes to accomplish in us, deigned to appear. There is a contrast between this damp and obscure Grotto and the presence of “the Immaculate Conception.” It reminds us of the Gospel: the meeting of the wealth of the goodness of God and the poverty of the human person. “Jesus goes to sit at the table of sinners,” “because he came to search out that which was lost.”

That Mary appeared in a dirty and obscure Grotto, in the place called Massabielle, the Old Rock, tells us that God comes to join us where we are, in the midst of our poverty and failures. The Grotto is not only a place where something happened – a geographical place – it is also a place where God gives us a sign by revealing his heart and our heart….


During the 3rd Apparition on February 18, Mary spoke for the first time. Bernadette held out a paper and pencil that she might write down her name, but the Lady replied: “What I have to say to you does not have to be written down.” This was an extraordinary statement. It meant that Mary wanted to enter into a relationship in the order of love, at the level of the heart. The heart, in the Bible, signifies the very depth of the person. Bernadette was invited to open the depths of her heart to this Message….

Bernadette was overwhelmed at the 2nd statement of the Virgin Mary: “Would you do me the kindness of coming here for 15 days?” It was the first time that anyone had addressed her in a formal way. She describes these words by saying that the Virgin looked at her “as one person looks at another person.” Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are persons. Bernadette felt that she was also respected and loved, she also had the experience of being a person. We are all worthy of our dignity in the eyes of God. Because each of us is loved by God.

The 3rd statement of the Virgin was: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.”  We know a world of violence, lies, sensuality, and war exists alongside a world of charity and justice. These two worlds exist on our earth. [Bernadette was promised the joy and happiness of heaven].

During the seven first Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Bernadette’s face was radiant with joy, happiness, and light. Between the 8th and 12th Apparitions all changed: her face became hard, sad and sorrowful. Moreover, Bernadette did things that were incomprehensible. She moved on her knees to the back of the Grotto and kissed its disgusting ground. She ate its bitter grass and scraped the ground three times trying to drink the muddy water. She tried sucking in a little and then threw it away, she took mud in her hands and smeared her face. Then the young girl turned to the crowd with her hands apart. They said: “She’s mad!” During four Apparitions, she carried out the same actions. We are at the heart of the “Message of Lourdes”.


  These are biblical actions. Because “the Lady” asked her, Bernadette acted out the Incarnation, Passion and Death of Christ. Moving on her knees recalls the Incarnation, God lowers himself to become human. Bernadette kissing the ground is an act of humility like the love God has for his people. Eating bitter grass recalls when the Jews wanted to show that God took on himself all the bitterness and sins of the world, they killed a lamb, cleaned it and filled it with bitter herbs and then prayed over the lamb. “This is the Lamb of God who takes away, who takes on himself, all the bitterness and all the sins of the world.” Smearing her face with mud recalls the prophet Isaiah calling the Messiah “the suffering servant.” Because he carried on himself all our sins, his face didn’t appear human. He was, Isaiah says, “like a lamb led to the slaughter, and on his way the crowd mocked him.” At the Grotto the crowd cries out Bernadette “has gone mad.”


The actions that Bernadette carried out were the actions of freeing something. The Grotto was choked with grass and mud, but it hides an immense treasure, which must be brought out into the open. Thus, at the 9th Apparition, “the Lady” asked Bernadette to scrape the ground, at the back of this “pigs’ shelter,” saying to her: “Go to the spring, drink of it and wash yourself there.” There is only a little muddy water to begin with, enough for Bernadette to drink. At first this water is muddy and dirty then, little by little, it becomes clear.

By these actions, the mystery of the heart of Jesus is revealed for us: “A soldier pierced his heart with his lance and there immediately flowed out blood and water.” It is, as well, the depths of the mystery of the heart of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God: “The water that I shall give you will become, in you, a spring welling up to eternal life.” The grass and the mud signify the human heart, wounded by sin. But in the bottom of this heart, there is the life of God, as signified by the spring.

Bernadette was asked: “Did the Lady say something to you?” She replied: “Yes, now and again she would say: ‘Penance, penance, penance, pray for sinners.’” By penance we understand conversion. Conversion in the Church, as we learn from Christ, involves turning our heart towards God and others. “Pray for sinners.” Praying brings us to the Spirit of God. Thus we understand that sin does not make us happy. We must understand that sin is contrary to the love of God revealed to us through the Gospel.


On March 25, 1858, the day of the 16th Apparition, Bernadette went to the Grotto where, at the initiative of Abbot Peyramale, priest of Lourdes, she asked "the Lady" to tell her name. Three times Bernadette asked the question. At the fourth request, "the Lady" replied, "I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette did not understand the meaning of this word. The Immaculate Conception, as the Church teaches, is "Mary conceived without sin, through the merits of the Cross of Christ. Bernadette went at once to the parish priest to tell him the name of "the Lady.” He understood that it was the Mother of God….at the Grotto. Later, Tarbes Bishop Laurence, authenticated this.

During the 13th Apparition Our Lady said to Bernadette: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here.” “Come here in procession” means always moving, in this life, towards others. “Build a chapel here.” In Lourdes, chapels were built to receive the crowds that came. But these chapels are only signs of the communion based on the love to which we are called. The chapel is the “Church” that we want to build where we are, in our family, at our place of work, in our parish, in our diocese. All Christians spend their lives building the Church, living in communion with others.




Heart, Soul and Mind

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


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