Chapter 6

Lourdes, France

Chapter 6

‘She lifted up her eyes to heaven, joined her hands as though in prayer that were held out and open towards the ground, and said to me: “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.”’

BernadetteTwelve years after her apparitions in La Salette Our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubirouis in Lourdes, a village in southern France, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains near the Spanish border. It was February 11, 1858. Earlier that day, Bernadette – a poor sickly child of 14 – accompanied her sister and a friend to Massabielle, a place near town to collect firewood.

At that time the grotto area was an old garbage dump on the side of the Gave River and, although it had a bad reputation, the area around it contained firewood. Two of the girls crossed the river ahead of Bernadette but, as the water was so cold, they told her to stay where she was. Nevertheless, Bernadette decided to follow them anyway.

She said: “I was taking off my stocking when I heard a noise like the sound of a storm. I looked at the trees near the river, but nothing was moving. I was frightened, and I stood up straight. Bewildered, I looked across the mill-stream to a niche above a cave in the rock of Massabielle. A rosebush on the edge of the niche was swaying in the wind. It was all that moved.

The Lady

Bernadette said: “A golden cloud came out of the cave and flooded the niche with radiance. Then a lady, young and beautiful – exceedingly beautiful – the like of whom I had never seen, stood on the edge of the niche. She smiled at me, beckoning me to come closer as though she were my mother, and she gave me to understand in my soul that I was not mistaken.

“The Lady was dressed in white, with a white veil on her head, and a blue sash at her waist. A rosary of white beads on a golden chain was on her right arm. On that cold winter’s day, her feet were bare, but on each foot was a golden rose radiant with the warmth of summer.

“I went upon my knees and took my rosary from my pocket. The Lady took the rosary from her arm and I began to cross myself. My arm could not move until the Lady herself made a beautiful Sign of the Cross. The Lady let me pray the rosary on my own.

She passed the beads through her fingers; she did not say the words. She signed for me to come closer but I did not dare. She smiled at me, she bowed to me. She disappeared into the niche, the golden cloud faded, and I was all alone.”

Meanwhile, the other two finished gathering wood and upon returning to the grotto noticed Bernadette acting rather strangely. She wasn’t moving; they thought she might have died! When they finally asked what was happening, Bernadette told them; but, only on the condition they wouldn’t tell anyone else!

They agreed; however, as soon as they arrived home, her sister told their mother all about the events at the grotto. Bernadette was scolded severely by her mother for making up such stories, so harshly that her mother eventually broke a broom over Bernadette’s back! Louise Casterot Soubirouis’ children do not lie!

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However, this was just the beginning of Bernadette’s difficulties. Although her parents had forbidden her to return to that garbage dump again, Bernadette felt an interior force three days later drawing her back to the grotto. Finally, owing to Bernadette’s insistence accompanied with uncontrollable crying, her mother eventually relented.

Away she went to the grotto and as soon as she arrived she knelt down to say the rosary. Just after finishing the first decade, the lady appeared. This time Bernadette sprinkled holy water in her direction; but, the lady only smiled and inclined her head downward. When they finished the rosary, the lady again disappeared.

Four days later, on the 18th, the lady spoke for the first time. Bernadette held out a pen and paper and asked her to write her name. The lady replied: “It is not necessary” adding, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other. Would you be kind enough to come here for a fortnight?” Bernadette agreed, telling her she would.

Over the next nine days the lady appeared to her seven times; however, at the end of this time, the local judge threatened to put her in prison because of all the commotion she was causing. During that same time, the lady revealed a secret to her, only for her alone. On the following day the lady said: “Penance, Penance, Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Kiss the ground as an act of penance for sinners!”

Meanwhile the crowds were continuing to increase in size. During one apparition with many people present, Bernadette related; “She told me to go ‘…drink of the spring.’ I only found a little muddy water. At the fourth attempt I was able to drink. She also made me eat the bitter herbs that were found near the spring. She also told me to wash myself in the spring which, at first, was only mud, then, the vision left and went away.”

The crowd was incredulous at this scene! When they asked: “Do you think that she is mad doing things like that?” Bernadette replied: “It is for sinners.”

However, shortly after she humbled herself by digging in the mud, a spring emerged, and the water flowing from it began to produce miraculous healings. By March 1st, over fifteen hundred people gathered and, for the first time, a priest was among them.

During that night a friend of Bernadette’s from Lourdes, Catherine Latapie, went to the grotto. Plunging her dislocated arm into the water of the spring, both her arm and her hand regained their strength immediately.

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By the next day the crowd grew even larger. The lady told her: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and to build a chapel here.” Bernadette immediately told this to Father Peyramale, the parish priest in Lourdes. He wanted to know only one thing: “What was the lady’s name?”

Then, he demanded a test. Inasmuch as he was a fancier of roses, he asked: “to see the wild rosebush flower at the grotto in the middle of winter. Perhaps the dean was thinking about the miraculous blooming of the roses in Guadalupe, Mexico when he demanded a similar miracle from Our Lady in Lourdes.

On the following day, at seven in the morning, about three thousand people had gathered. Bernadette came to the grotto, but the lady did not appear! After school, she heard the interior invitation of the lady and returned to the grotto. When she appeared this time Bernadette again asked for her name. but the lady’s only response was a smile.

When she relayed this to the parish priest, he insisted: “If the lady really wishes that a chapel be built, then, she must tell us her name and make the rose bush bloom at the grotto. By the next day, the crowd grew to about eight thousand people, all waiting for a miracle.

Apparently, Our Lady was not one to be told what she must do in order for us to believe in her for her appearance was silent; no miracle occurred.

Still, Father Peyramale stuck to his original position. Bernadette stayed away from the grotto for twenty days as she no longer felt the irresistible invitation of the lady. During these days, many inspected the site for a hint of budding flowers, but there was none.

The Immaculate Conception

Finally, on March the 25th, Our Lady revealed her name. Bernadette vividly recalled: “She lifted up her eyes to Heaven, joined her hands as though in prayer that were held out and open towards the ground, and said to me: ‘Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.’”

Bernadette left hurriedly, running all the way to tell Father Peyramale, meanwhile, repeating over and over those words she did not understand. When she finally relayed them to the priest it troubled him for he knew Bernadette was ignorant of their meaning.

She was completely unaware of the fact that, just four years earlier, on December 8, 1854, this theological expression had been assigned to the Blessed Virgin when Pope Pius IX declared this to be a dogma of the Catholic Church.

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Interestingly, even though Father Peyramale commanded that the lady: “…must tell us her name and make the rose bush bloom at the grotto,” the wild rose bush on which she stood during the apparitions never bloomed.

During an apparition on the 7th of April, Bernadette kept her candle lighted and, although her fingers and hand were directly in the flame for some time, she was not harmed in the slightest. Dr. Douzous, the local medical doctor, noticed this very carefully and recorded it.

On the 16th of July, she received the mysterious interior call to the grotto but, this time, her way was blocked; it had been closed off by a barrier. Instead, she went to the other side of the Gave River, just across from the grotto.

She said: “I felt that I was in front of the grotto, at the same distance as before; I saw only the Blessed Virgin, and she was more beautiful than ever!” That was the eighteenth and final apparition of Our Lady.

As the sun was setting, the lady who called herself L’Immaculada Councepciou took her leave of the child. Just as she was disappearing she cast one final smile to Bernadette. Never again in this life would she see the Lady; now, she could only wait for her to keep the promise she had made during her second appearance: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other.”

Later, Bernadette would declare: “The Blessed Virgin is so beautiful that when one has seen her once, one would gladly wish to die so as to see her again.” That feeling was to flower within the heart and soul of this faithful child and remain with her for the rest of her life.

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Bernadette gave a classic response to the question: “What is a sinner?” Without hesitation, she answered: “A sinner is one who loves evil.” It was a simple and sincere answer; she did not say one who does evil; rather, “…one who loves evil.”

When Bernadette was 22 years of age, she went to the hospice school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. There she finally learned to read and write. She eventually joined the Sisters at their motherhouse in Nevers and spent the rest of her brief life working as an assistant in the infirmary there. She was given the name, Marie Bernard.

After the first night there, telling all the nuns about the events that transpired at Lourdes, she was ordered to never speak to them again about the apparitions. She eventually died of her long-term illness at the age of 35. She died at the convent in Nevers on April 16, 1879. Her last words were after the conclusion of the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…sinners…”  

The Investigation

In 1911, the Church began an investigation into Bernadette’s cause for canonization. As part of the formal proceedings, Bernadette’s coffin was opened and it was found that, after thirty-two years, her body was found to be incorrupt, except for a slight facial discoloration. A crystal coffin was made for St. Bernadette’s body and placed in the convent in Nevers. She has remained undisturbed and on view in this chapel since August 3, 1925.

On December 8, 1933, Pope Pius XI declared that Bernadette was a saint and her feast day would be on February 18th. A church was erected later at the site of the spring. The Sisters of Charity in Nevers welcome visitors and encourage others to learn about the life, example, and messages of their sister saint.

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People come to Lourdes for the curative waters and the great candlelight procession held every evening. During the entire evening the song, Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria is sung in as many languages as there are people who represent their nations throughout the world. To this day, whenever I reminisce about Lourdes, those beautiful sounds still clearly resonate in my ears! My eyes moisten whenever the words are sung in church.

Pilgrims continue to visit the shrine where the water still flows from a spring at the same spot where it was uncovered by Bernadette. It has produced thousands of healings. While many of the visitors fully immerse themselves in the waters in cubicles provided for that purpose, others take samples of the water home to those who are unable to make the pilgrimage.

While most people believe the waters are the source of the numerous miracles reported there, it is generally unknown that most of the miracles that occur in Lourdes take place during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. Every afternoon at 4:30, during the closing Benediction, either the Bishop or a priest carries a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament to bless the sick who are present. The monstrance is usually sheltered from the elements with a mobile awning carried by four assistants.

Although miracles still grace the grotto in Lourdes the Church does not readily accept miracles! Of the thousands of miraculous events that are reported, only sixty-five have met these strictures to date and been officially approved by the Church.

The Church insists a miracle must be like a lightning bolt – a complete, instantaneous cure from one millisecond to another – and have adequate documentation to prove it. It would be well for us to also remember that true miracles are something that cannot be explained by natural means and that coincidences are not necessarily miracles.

While recalling the description of the apparitions, the bishop explained the reason for the caution the Church exhibits in examining supernatural events. The Church demands definite proof before admitting them and proclaiming they are of a divine nature; even the devil can lead people astray by taking on the form of an angel.

The bishop stated: “We are inspired by the Commission comprising of wise, holy, learned and experienced priests who questioned the child, studied the facts, examined everything and weighed all the evidence.

We have also called on science, and we remain convinced that the Apparitions are supernatural and divine, and that by consequence what Bernadette saw was the Most Blessed Virgin. Our convictions are based on the testimony of Bernadette, but above all on the things that have happened, things which can be nothing other than divine intervention.”

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The Playwright

Franz Werfel was a Jewish playwright caught up in the frenzy of the Nazi regime that lead up to World War II. He tried to flee from Czechoslovakia into Spain which, along with Portugal, remained neutral during the war; however, unable to do so, he eventually found himself in Lourdes, France. As with so many other Jews who were especially targeted by the Gestapo during those times, Werfel went through the constant fear of being captured, knowing full well what awaited him if he was captured.

Additionally, he knew he was putting the lives of all those who had any part in hiding him at risk! Yet, in spite of this threat, many of the families in Lourdes alternately took turns concealing him. While there, he learned firsthand about the appearances of Our Lady to Bernadette and of the ensuing miracles. He made a solemn promise to Our Lady that if he survived the war he would somehow publicize those events.

Then, in late 1940, he managed to escape to the United States via the port of Marseilles, France. He fulfilled his promise the following year with the publication of his book The Song of Bernadette. It was eventually made into an inspiring movie of the same name.

One of the more interesting statements in the movie was attributed to Fr. Pomian after he witnessed the miraculous cure of a terminally ill child: “Last night when I came here, it was very dark. It’s much lighter now!”

Europe had been torn asunder by violence and revolution during the years before and after Mary appeared in France. It was hoped that Heaven would bestow benevolence upon the entire continent due to the apparitions; perhaps her appearances might eventually present France and all of Europe time to heal.


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Appearances of the Mother of God