Dear Friends and Benefactors, 02/19/2020
“We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, has actually appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, on the 11th of February and the following days, for a total number of eighteen times.” (Bishop of Tarbes).
At the Boly mill, in Lourdes, on Sunday, January 7th 1844, nearly 29 years to the day before the birth of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Bernarde-Marie (Bernadette) Soubirous was born, though at her baptism two days later the Curé insistently referred to her as Marie-Bernarde and she was put down in the baptismal registry under that name. She was named in part after her aunt, but also after the great French Medieval Doctor of the Church: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. So indeed from the first moments of the life Bernadette was put under the patronage of Our Lady and this great Benedictine Saint. She would be the oldest of nine children. From the age of six, she was subject to asthmatic attacks that would cause her to suffer her life through. Mr. Soubirous, her father, worked hard; but poverty led the family to seek refuge in a one-room hovel, called “the dungeon.” Bernadette kept “house” and took care of her brothers and sisters. They all loved one another so much and prayed so well that misery did not stand in the way of family happiness.
On February 11, 1858, it was very cold in the “dungeon.” With some friends, Bernadette went to look for dead wood at the grotto of Massabielle on the banks of the Gave River. Suddenly, she saw an extraordinarily beautiful Lady in the hollow of the rock. Her body, which appeared to be as real as that of each and every one of ours, did not differ from that of an ordinary person except in its inexpressible beauty. She was of average height and seemed quite young. The rounded curve of her face showed celestial grace and her blue eyes expressed a smoothness which seemed to melt the heart of whomever would look into them. Her lips breathed divine goodness and meekness. Gripped with a supernatural fear but filled with joy, Bernadette dared not approach; she recited her Rosary with the Lady. The apparition ceased: Bernadette came out of her ecstasy and, pressed by her companions, she let slip out what she had wanted to keep all to herself.
Upon hearing about the event, Madame Soubirous feared it was an illusion and forbade her daughter to return to the rock of Massabielle. But on Sunday the fourteenth, she gave in to Bernadette’s girlfriends. Soon after arriving at the grotto, the visionary announced: “There she is”; then, approaching, she sprinkled holy water saying: “If you come on behalf of God, stay; if not, go away!” Bernadette would retell: “The Lady began to smile, and the more holy water I sprinkled, the more she smiled.”
On February 18, the Lady said to Bernadette: “Do you wish to do me the favor of coming here for the next fifteen days?” Beaming with joy, the little girl accepted, and the Lady quickly responded: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.” On the 21st, there was a huge crowd that Bernadette had to pass through in order to get to the grotto. The Lady looked into the distance, with a sad face; then she spoke to Bernadette, “Pray to God for sinners.” On the 24th, Bernadette was in tears and could only repeat to the crowd the instructions of the Lady, which she summarized in one word: “Penance! Penance! Penance!”
On the 25th day of February, Bernadette went on her knees to the center of the grotto where the Lady was waiting. “Go drink at the fountain and wash yourself,” the Lady told her. Bernadette scratched her fingers into the pile of sand. From the depths of the rock, a spring had found its way to Bernadette’s hand. The child took the first mouthful of this still muddy water, and then moistened her face. The spring would soon become an inexhaustible fountain, the divine instrument of numerous and amazing cures.
On Tuesday, the 2nd day of March, the Lady gives Bernadette a message for the Parish Priest, Abbé Peyramale, to build a chapel at the grotto. The Priest, still not believing, only wanted to know the name of the Lady. On Thursday, March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, the Lady tells Bernadette “QUE SOY ERA IMMACULADA CONCEPCIOU.” – “I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION”. This theological expression had been assigned to the Blessed Virgin, just four years earlier, in 1854, as Pope Pius IX declared this a truth of the Catholic Faith (a dogma). Bernadette could not have known this, and her words left the Parish Priest puzzled.
The last apparition of the Blessed Virgin occurred on July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. “I had never seen her look so beautiful,” Bernadette said.
Bishop of Tarbes, the local Bishop, started a Church enquiry almost immediately and four years later declared the Apparitions as authentic in the name of the Church. The investigations showed many who were sick being cured by means not able to be explained by traditional medical methods. The Bishop, in his declaration concluded: “There is thus a direct link between the cures and the Apparitions, the Apparitions are of divine origin, since the cures carry a divine stamp. But what comes from God is the truth! As a result, the Apparition, calling herself the Immaculate Conception, that Bernadette saw and heard, is the Most Holy Virgin Mary! Thus we write: the finger of God is here.”
“We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, has actually appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, on the 11th of February and the following days, for a total number of eighteen times.”
The Benedictine writer, Dom Antoine Marie explains that during these apparitions, the Blessed Virgin revealed to Bernadette that she would become a nun. Eight years later, after having long hesitated on the choice of a religious community, the visionary of Lourdes, now 22 years old, entered the Sisters of Charity and Christian Education of Nevers: “I have come here to hide myself,” was how she expressed it.
The mistress of novices at the Convent of Nevers was Mother Marie-Thérèse Vauzou. Having remained something of a great lady under the veil, she was zealous for the sanctification of her sisters, but had her own ideas about their progress. She wanted them to be humble and confident, and would not permit their souls to harbor secrets from her. Bernadette, to whom the Blessed Virgin had confided several secrets not to be told to anyone, hardly seemed open to her Superior. In her eyes, the visionary of Lourdes was an ordinary young woman and it was important to form her to the religious life. One could not ignore the extraordinary favors that she had received, but it was necessary to fortify her against the temptations of pride.
In the novitiate the young sister was occupied at odd jobs, sometimes in the sacristy, sometimes in the infirmary. She always wore her peaceful smile, but her face betrayed fatigue. Indeed, she had more courage than health. Asthma weighed her down and she suffered from stomachaches and headaches. Soon she was bedridden, and, on October 25, she was in dire straits. Following the pressing advice of her confessor, she asked to make her religious Profession. The bishop, Monsignor Forcade, gave the required authorization, and himself came to the bedside of the dying woman to receive her perpetual vows. Soon after the ceremony, Bernadette’s health unexpectedly returned. She said with a bit of regret, “I am doing better; the Good Lord did not want me; I went to the door and He said to me: `Go back, it’s too soon!’ ” She would survive yet another 12 years.
A fervent and devoted novice, Sister Marie-Bernard humbly blended in among her companions. At the end of the novitiate, Monsignor Forcade bestowed upon each of the young sisters the work they would be called on to perform. Each received the charge that was intended for them, but Bernadette was omitted from the list. The bishop asked, “And what about Sister Marie-Bernard?” The Superior answered, “Your Excellency, she is good for nothing.”-“Is that true, Sister Marie-Bernard, that you are good for nothing?” The humble sister answered, “It is true.”-“Well then, my poor child, what are we to do with you?” The Superior intervened, “Your Excellency, if you wish, we could keep her out of charity at the Mother House and use her in some way at the infirmary, if only for cleaning and making tea. Since she is always sick, that would really be the right place for her.” The bishop acquiesced but raised the tenor of the debate: “I give you the job of prayer,” he told the little Sister. Faced with this public humiliation, painfully felt, Bernadette remembered the instructions of the Blessed Virgin: “To suffer for the eternal salvation of poor sinners,” and her profound joy did not leave her. Later she would write in her diary: “O my soul, be the faithful imitator of Jesus, He who is so meek and humble of heart. A person who is only humble of heart will be glorified; what will be the crown of those who are humble inside and humiliated outside, who have imitated the humility of the Saviour to its full extent?”
After having enjoyed numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Bernadette could have taken advantage of this privilege in order to put herself forward. On the contrary, she had given an example of profound humility, which constitutes a lesson that is particularly important for our times. Indeed, people today are often jealous of a poorly understood freedom; they claim total independence of anything and everything, even of their Creator, and thus fall into self-idolatry.
Saint Benedict asserted with respect to the first step of humility: “Let a man consider that God is always looking at him from Heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels” (Rule, chap. 7).
Thus, humility is a source of union with God and of confidence in His paternal presence. It disposes one to prayer, which obtains for us graces that we need in order to accomplish our salvation. In fact, the very humble life of Saint Bernadette was a life of prayer. But it was also a life marked by great courage because, contrary to popular opinion, humility is not the virtue of cowards or of those who lack character. Rather, it reveals an uncommon strength of the soul. Thus, some years after her profession, Saint Bernadette added to her job of “prayer” which she judged quite superior to others, another job, no less elevated and profitable. While she was bedridden in a corner of the infirmary, she was visited by a Superior: “What are you doing there, lazy little thing?”-“But, my dear Mother, I am doing my job.”-“And what is your job?”-“To be sick.”
Sister Marie-Bernard suffered in her body: tuberculosis had begun its slow and destructive work. With the other sisters, she also suffered poverty which went even to destitution and even sometimes to a lack of bread. But besides the physical suffering there was the moral test, no less difficult to bear. The coldness that Mother Marie-Thérèse felt it her duty to show her was for Bernadette a deep pain that would endure a full ten years. Mother recognized the exemplary religious fervor of Bernadette; but, not noticing anything extraordinary in this “visionary,” she held an unfavorable opinion on the facts of Massabielle. This troublesome situation led a novice to reflect: “What luck not to be Bernadette!” But, speaking of Mother Marie-Thérèse, Sister Marie-Bernard would declare with perfect sincerity: “I owe her a lot of gratitude for the good she has done to my soul.”
Bernadette wrote, “My divine Spouse has given me an attraction to the humble and hidden life, and He often told me that my heart would not stop until it had sacrificed everything for Him. And to help me decide, He often inspires me with the thought that, after all, at death, my only consolation would come from Jesus, and Jesus Crucified. Him alone, faithful friend, will I take between my icy fingers to my tomb. O folly of follies, to attach myself to something other than Him.” To a woman, who had just lost her husband and her two children, she counseled recourse to the Sacred Heart: “God tests those whom He loves,” she wrote. “Thus, you have a very particular right to a place in His Divine Heart; it is only there that you will find true and solid consolation. It is He Himself that invites us by these sweet words: `O, all of you who suffer and are troubled, come to Me; I will help and console you.’ ” Tuberculosis was gaining ground on her poor exhausted body: a tumor became evident on her knee, which swelled and became very painful. She noted in her diary: “I have completely lost the use of my legs; I have to undergo the humiliation of being carried.” Beginning in October, 1878, the tumor produced unrelenting pain. Bernadette only found strength in Jesus and, out of love for Him, she even came to “love” suffering: “With my Christ, I am happier on my bed than a queen on her throne,” she wrote to a Sister that had sent her a picture of Jesus Crucified. Thus she echoed these words of Saint Paul: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church” (Col 1: 24). United with the mystery of the suffering of Christ, she truly participated in the Redemption and the sanctification of souls. Due to this, Bernadette is a light for our age where the unbridled search for pleasure is often taken as a rule of life.
Ordinarily, Sister Marie-Bernard supported her right leg on a chair, out of bed, on account of the tumor. A cavity in the bone, similar to the worst of toothaches, caused mute complaints in her. She never became impatient, but there was always the same breathless, halting whimper, that of a will that is heroically struggling. She said, “When one is in bed, during a time of great suffering, it is necessary to remain motionless like Our Lord on the Cross.” She was not always able to accomplish it: ” Pay no attention to my contortions, it’s nothing!” and, holding her Crucifix: “I am like Him.” During long nights, she recited the Rosary: “I am happy during my sleepless hours to unite myself with Jesus in the Host. A glance at this image (depicting a monstrance) gives me the strength to immolate myself, when I feel more the isolation and the suffering.” Her great happiness was to associate herself in thought to the Masses that were being celebrated at that moment, in this or that part of the world. In her moments of respite, she made herself useful to the community by embroidery, drawing, painting, etc.
The 19th of March, 1879, the feast of Saint Joseph: “What grace have you asked of Him, Sister Marie-Bernard?”-“The grace of a good death!” she answered.
March 28: she received the last rites. Her martyrdom would stretch out another three weeks. “Heaven, Heaven,” she murmured. “It is said that there are saints who do not go directly there because they did not desire it enough. For me, that will not be the case.”
They told her, “Remember the promise of the Blessed Virgin: Heaven is at the end.” She answered weakly, “Yes, but the end is a long time coming. I have been ground like a grain of wheat. “
During the night of April 14th to 15th, the devil tried to make her despair. She called: “Jesus!” Then she cried out: “Begone, Satan!” The chaplain asked her: “Do you wish to make the sacrifice of your life?” “What sacrifice? It is not a sacrifice to leave this poor life in which one goes through so many difficulties to belong to God! Oh! How right the Imitation of Jesus Christ is when it teaches that one must not wait until the last moment to serve God! At such a moment one is capable of so little!”
The morning of April 16 was very painful. Sister Marie-Bernard was suffocating. “I am going to ask the Immaculate Mother to bring you consolation,” Mother Eleonore told her. “No, not consolation, but strength and patience. I have seen Her,” she went on, looking at the statue of the Blessed Virgin, “I have seen Her! Oh! She was beautiful and I am in a hurry to go see Her again!”
A little before three o’clock in the afternoon, she was subject to interior sufferings. The Sister in attendance slowly recited the “Hail Mary.” At the words: “Holy Mary ” Bernadette joined the Sister who let her continue alone. Humble, and confident to the end, Sister Marie-Bernard said twice: “Holy Mary, Mother of God! Pray for me poor sinner, poor sinner ” Soon after, she expired, still pressing the crucifix against her heart. She was 35 years old. The Blessed Virgin had promised her that she would die young. The time for her reward had arrived.
“As soon as she was dead,” stated Sister Bernard Dalias, “Bernadette’s face became young and peaceful again, with a look of purity and blessedness.” As Rev. Abbé François Trochu explains, the infirmarians clothed her in her religious habit. “We had no difficulty in doing so,” observed Sister de Vigouroux, “for her body was supple even though she had been dead for two hours.” Moreover, it remained like that until the funeral. All the nuns in the Mother House came in turn on that evening of Wednesday, April 16th, to pray around the bed on which was laid out.
About eleven o’clock on the following day the body was brought down to the chapel. There it lay in state in a temporary coffin surrounded with white draperies and lilies. There was a crown of white roses over her black veil and her beads were entwined around her clasped hands, with her crucifix and the formula of her Perpetual Vows between her fingers. Bernadette appeared to be sleeping.
“I was in a position to vouch for the speed with which the news of her death spread through the whole town and the sensation it caused among the people,” said Father Raffin. In Nevers, and well beyond Nevers, there was but one cry in religious houses and Catholic homes: “She has gone to see the Blessed Virgin again in Heaven!” In spite of continuous rain large crowds set out for Saint-Gildard. “It seemed,” remarked Mother Forestier, “as if all this multitude wanted to make up for not having been able to approach Bernadette during her life.” Among the number, observed a lady of the town, “were many indifferent Catholics and even unbelievers”, yet there was no commotion or disorder. And far from feeling any apprehension, people were “drawn towards her. Even little children found it a joy to look at her”. “It is not just talk,” said a homely woman on coming out of the chapel, “it is not merely the face of a Christian, it is a real saint’s face.”
For the whole of the two days that the body remained lying in state, the main doors of the chapel were kept “open as on Holy Thursday”, when everyone is allowed to go in and pray before the Altar of Repose. Four Sisters were kept busy the whole time touching the corpse with the pious objects handed to them. After those two days, it is said, there was not a single medal, cross or rosary left in the shops of Nevers…. Working men and women were seen handing up their tools or their scissors and thimbles to be touched against Bernadette’s hands. Several of the garrison officers laid the hilt of their swords on them and remained a long time afterward in prayer, withdrawing to the back of the chapel so as not to hinder the crowd from approaching.
The funeral was at first fixed for Friday, April 18th, but it had to be deferred a day because, notwithstanding the efficient arrangements, there were still too many people who had not yet been able to get into the chapel. Early on a lovely morning (Saturday the 19th) the public began to invade the courtyards of the Mother House and the adjoining streets. At the railway station in Nevers the number of travellers alighting from the trains astonished everyone. “What’s happening?” they asked. “It’s the funeral of the little saint of Lourdes,” was the reply.
The Holy See wished to be enlightened on the primary question: should the Cause of Sister Marie-Bernard be taken up? On August 20th, 1908, in the chapel of Saint-Gildard, in the presence of more than two hundred nuns assembled for the annual Retreat, was formally constituted, under the efficient presidency of Bishop Gauthey, the ecclesiastical court which was to conduct the first enquiry, known as the Informative Process, concerning the life, virtues, reputation for sanctity and miracles of the servant of God. Before closing the initial session at which Bernadette’s cause had just been opened, the Bishop of Nevers pointed out the propitious circumstances: it was the Feast of St Bernard; it was the jubilee year of the Apparitions.
One hundred and thirty-two sessions were to follow, in the course of which appeared the survivors of the Soubirous family, a number of clergy, nuns and layfolk who had known Bernadette well. The Ecclesiastical Commission displayed prodigious activity, for by October 23rd, 1909, the Congregation for Rites was in possession of all the documents of the Enquiry.
At Nevers, the previous September 22nd, before finally closing the Informative Process, Bishop Gauthey had ordered proceedings to be taken, in due canonical form, for the exhumation of the body of Sister Marie-Bernard. In St Joseph’s chapel there was profound emotion when the “confidante of the Immaculate,” after being buried for thirty years and five months, was again brought into the light of day.
There was no trace of corruption. The flesh was parched but intact, and it had preserved its whiteness. Her head, which was covered in the cap and veil, and her hands, which were crossed over her heart, holding the tarnished crucifix and the rosary corroded with rust, were slightly inclined to the left. Her eyes, deeply sunk in their sockets, were found to be completely closed. Her lips were partially open, as in a smile…. The touching attitude of the little dead body, as Bishop Gauthey remarked, recalled that of the young virgins in the first centuries discovered in the catacombs.
On August 13th, 1913, Pope Pius X signed the decree for the introduction of the Cause. By that very fact Bernadette received the title of Venerable. Then was to follow under the authority of Cardinal Vico the “Apostolic Process” concerning her reputation for sanctity, her virtues and miracles. Delayed by the war, this did not open until September 17th, 1917, and was presided over by Bishop Chatelus, successor to Bishop Gauthey, who had no become Archbishop of Besançon. Two hundred and three sessions were required. At length, on February 11th, 1920, the resulting documents were lodged with the Congregation of Rites.
On November 18th, 1923, in the Ducal Hall, before the whole French colony of Rome, Pope Pius XI published the “Decree on the heroic nature of the virtues of the Venerable Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous”. In his reply to the discourse of Bishop Chatelus, the Pope insisted on expressing his own thoughts about Bernadette’s sanctity: “There is no doubt that we are here in the presence of sanctity in the precise and exact meaning of the word…”
In fact, when one considers Bernadette’s life such as it appears at every stage of the Processes, which have been lengthy, careful, considered and strict, as they should always be, we are pleased to say, for the greater glory of God, this life can be summed up in three words: Bernadette was faithful to her mission, she was humble in glory, she was valiant under trial.
Meanwhile the Congregation for Rites was examining the authenticity of the miracles put forward for the Beatification. From some ten of them it had selected two cases of cures which had been meticulously checked by the doctors…
Then, on Friday, December 8th, 1933 – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – the Catholic Church lavished its splendours on little Bernadette. The great Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome threw open its doors, and there, radiantly happy and proud, were her family of birth and her family by grace. The widow of her brother, Jean-Marie; her nephews Pierre, François and Bernard, and other members of the Soubirous family, made their way to the Tribune of the Postulation with the Very Reverend Mother Crapard, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, and hundred and sixty of her nuns. Ten thousand pilgrims had come from France, and about forty thousand people filled the naves when, towards 8:15 am, Pope Pius XI appeared, carried aloft in the gestatorial chair.
The silver trumpets sounded. Then, to the singing of the liturgical hymns were added the swelling voices of the multitude cheering the Pontiff as he came forward giving his blessing, and cheering banner of the Saint-to-be. After the triple petition to the Consistorial Advocate and the chanting of the “Litany of Saints” and the “Veni Creator”, the whole assembly rose and there was an impressive silence. Seated on the Chair of the Apostle and with the mitre on his head, Pope Pius XI, Bishop and Teacher of the Universal Church, pronounced the formula of Canonization, in his warm resonant voice that vibrated with a certain tenderness as he reached the final words: “To the honour of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and for the spread of the Christian Religion, by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and by Our own, after mature deliberation and having often implored the Divine assistance, on the advice of Our venerable brethren the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, We define and declare the Blessed Marie-Bernard Soubirous a Saint, and we enroll her in the catalogue of Saints, ordaining that her memory shall be piously celebrated in the Universal Church on April 16th of each year, the day of her birth in Heaven. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The hymn of triumph burst forth: “Te Deum laudamus…” At the same moment the great bell of Saint Peter’s rang out, and with it every bell in the Eternal City.
In his homily after the Gospel of his Mass, Pope Pius XI had stressed the humility of this “ignorant girl, a simple miller’s daughter, who possessed no other wealth than the candour of her exquisite soul”; an authentic Saint, nevertheless, whose message, after the revelations of the Queen of Heaven and her exhortations of penance, procured for the world the magnificent spectacle of Lourdes, its three sanctuaries, its pilgrimages, its graces of conversion, of calls to perfection, and of miraculous cures….”
On this day of her supreme glorification, God was exalting His little servant. Truly – and this is the great lesson of Saint Bernadette’s life – God exalts none but the humble.
Prayer of Saint Bernadette: “Let the crucifix be not only in my eyes and on my breast, but in my heart. O Jesus! Release all my affections and draw them upwards.”
Prayer to Saint Bernadette: “O Saint Bernadette, who, as a meek and pure child, did eighteen times at Lourdes contemplate the beauty of the Immaculate Mother of God and received her messages, and who afterwards wished to hide thyself from the world in the convent of Nevers, and to offer thyself there as a victim for the conversion of sinners, obtain for us the grace of purity, simplicity and mortification that we also may attain to the vision of God and of Mary in Heaven. Amen.”
AVE MARIA !
Father Joseph Poisson
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