On February 11th we will be remembering the Appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858. Since then the shrine there has been overflowing with miraculous healings and conversions. It is one of the most popular and visited shrines in the world. It all began on February 11th, 1858 when a little 14 year old girl, Bernadette Soubiroux went out to gather wood along with her younger sister, Toilette and a friend, Jeanne Abadie . This was a Thursday evening right before Ash Wednesday. Bernadette saw a very beautiful lady above a rose bush in a grotto called Massabielle. Only Bernadette saw this woman. There was a golden cloud around her. Bernadette was frightened until she saw the smile on the woman’s face. The woman motioned to Bernadette to come towards her and she did, falling on her knees to pray the rosary. The woman was later described by Bernadette as the most beautiful lady she has ever seen. She was dressed in white with a blue sash and carried a rosary. Bernadette tried to begin the rosary with the sign of the cross, but was unable to move her arms until the lady did so first. They prayed the rosary together with Bernadette saying all the prayers, but the lady saying only the Glory be’s. When they finished the rosary, the lady disappeared back in to the cave and the golden cloud disappeared. Bernadette told her sister what had happened and they decided to keep it secret.
Later that evening, at the family prayer time, Bernadette began to cry and when her mother asked her what was wrong, her sister told the mother what had happened. The mother told Bernadette that these were just illusions and that she was not to return to Massabielle. Bernadette couldn’t keep the thoughts of this beautiful woman out of her mind. Bernadette knew that this woman was kind and gracious and talked about her to her mother. Bernadette described the woman as “She has the appearance of a young girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is dressed in a white robe, girdled at the waist with a blue ribbon which flows down all around it. A yoke closes it in graceful pleats at the base of the neck. The sleeves are long and tight-fitting. She wears upon her head a veil which is also white. This veil gives just a glimpse of her hair and then falls down at the back below her waist. Her feet are bare but covered by the last folds of her robe except at the point where a yellow rose shines upon each of them. She holds on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shinning like the two roses on her feet.” On Sunday, Bernadette’s mother allowed her to return to the grotto.
Bernadette’s parents and most of the town and even the Chief of Police were very concerned and worried about what was happening. They made it difficult for Bernadette, but she persevered, going to the site for a total of eighteen apparitions. People would often accompany her and they saw her face transfigured and illuminated and knew something was happening but did not see it. Bernadette was promised by the lady that she would have happiness in heaven. She also called Bernadette to pray for sinners and call people to repent and turn to Jesus. The lady also gave her a private prayer to pray every day and told her to bring a blessed candle with her whenever she visited the grotto. This tradition is kept to this very day.
During the ninth apparition the lady told Bernadette to drink from the fountain. Bernadette was confused as there was no fountain there. She began scratching the dirt where the lady pointed and water started coming out. This spring is still flowing today and delivers about four to five liters per minute. At the eleventh apparition, the lady told Bernadette to tell the priests to build a church on the spot of the grotto. When Bernadette went to the local pastor, he was not very receptive. At the fourteenth apparitions, the lady again told Bernadette to tell the local priests to build a chapel there. Bernadette was afraid of the local pastor because of the way he reacted to her first request, but decided to go back to him. He told her to tell the lady that he would not follow the dictates of a stranger and that if she wanted anything from him, she would have to identify herself. During the sixteenth apparition Mary identified herself as “The Immaculate Conception”. Bernadette had no idea what this meant. Although our early Church fathers talked about the Immaculate Conception, and theologians debated it for centuries, it was never defined as a dogma until 1854, just four years prior to the apparitions.
During the seventeenth apparition, when Bernadette went in to ecstasy, she unconsciously passed her hand on top of the candle and did not move it. She didn’t appear to feel it and did not hear the screams of the people around her as they watched the flame shoot through her hand. After the apparition, they took her to the doctor who could not see any burns at all. He even touched a lit candle to her and she screamed. It was at this point the local Prefect closed down the sight. Bernadette would make one more visit to say goodbye to Mary.
Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity and remained sickly. She kept up with her duties and prayers and died on April 16, 1879 at the age of 34. She was buried at Nevers, France. Thirty years later, in the presence of two doctors and several nuns, she was exhumed and her coffin was opened. There was no odor and her body had suffered no decay. Ten years later, she was again exhumed and found in the same condition. Her body is now at rest in a gold and glass coffin in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers, France.
Ever since the apparitions, people have been coming to Lourdes to bathe in the Healing waters. There have been thousands of healings and Saint Pope John Paul II declared February 11th, the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, as World Day of the Sick. John Paul II loved Lourdes and made three pilgrimages there during his Pontificate. Pope Benedict was also close to Lourdes. He was born on the Feast day of St. Bernadette and then on February 11th the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, he announced his stepping down from the papacy. Pope Benedict also told us, “The message that Our Lady continues to spread in Lourdes recalls the words that Jesus spoke at the very 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.”
There are so many stories about the miracles and life changing events that occurred at Lourdes. I would like to leave you one that I find very interesting. We all have probably seen the movie, “The Song of Bernadette”. That is based upon a book written by a famous German Jewish writer, Franz Werfel. He was trying to escape the Nazi holocaust and landed in Lourdes while he was trying to escape to Portugal. Several Catholic families took him and his wife in to hide them from the Nazis and he kept hearing the stories about Bernadette and all the miracles that happened at Lourdes. He was so moved by these miracles that he swore that if he and his wife escaped, he would write all about Bernadette. As soon as he came to the United States, he kept his promise and wrote “The Song of Bernadette”. This became so popular that they made it in to a movie. The interesting thing is that in creating this book Werfel honored the Rosary by making the book in five sections with ten chapters to each section, following the structure of the Rosary. Truly the Blessed Virgin Mary has brought about many healings and miracles as well as leading people away from sin and towards Jesus.
Here is a beautiful Lourdes prayer by Saint Pope John Paul II:
Hail Mary, poor and humble Woman, Blessed by the Most High! Virgin of hope, dawn of a new era, We join in your song of praise, to celebrate the Lord’s mercy, to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom and the full liberation of humanity.
Hail Mary, lowly handmaid of the Lord, Glorious Mother of Christ! Faithful Virgin, holy dwelling-place of the Word, Teach us to persevere in listening to the Word, and to be docile to the voice of the Spirit, attentive to his promptings in the depths of our conscience and to his manifestations in the events of history.
Hail Mary, Woman of sorrows, Mother of the living! Virgin spouse beneath the Cross, the new Eve, Be our guide along the paths of the world. Teach us to experience and to spread the love of Christ, to stand with you before the innumerable crosses on which your Son is still crucified.
Hail Mary, woman of faith, First of the disciples! Virgin Mother of the Church, help us always to account for the hope that is in us, with trust in human goodness and the Father’s love. Teach us to build up the world beginning from within: in the depths of silence and prayer, in the joy of fraternal love, in the unique fruitfulness of the Cross.
Holy Mary, Mother of believers, Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. Amen.