On a cold winter day, probably not that much different than today, a young French girl named Bernadette made her way, with two young friends, to the edge of her village to gather some wood for kindling along the banks of the river which ran next to the village. While the two younger girls took of their shoes and waded across an icy mill stream in order to cross over to the riverbank, Bernadette lingered behind. Standing alongside the stream, she had started to remove her stockings when she suddenly heard a noise like a loud rush of wind. Bernadette looked up toward a grotto in the rocky outcropping along the river and saw a movement which caught her eye. Moments later a golden cloud floated out of the grotto and in the midst of the cloud a beautiful woman appeared. Bernadette stared in fascination and noticed that the luminous apparition was wearing a soft white robe, a girdle of blue and a long, white veil which covered most of her hair. The woman’s eyes were gentle and golden roses bloomed at her feet. When the woman beckoned to Bernadette she felt no fear and she drew nearer to the apparition, sinking to her knees in reverence. Instinctively, young Bernadette drew out her rosary and began to pray. When she did this, she noticed that the woman had a large, white rosary with which she also began to pray. The two prayed silently and then the woman prayed the Gloria aloud with young Bernadette before she vanished into the grotto.
With this singular and unique event, 150 years ago this day, February 11, began the amazing series of apparitions of the Mother of Our Lord to young St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes. Not only was the life of this young girl, from a desperately poor French peasant family, changed forever, but the life of the Church in France, and across the world, was changed forever. In the intervening years, the Grotto at Lourdes would become the largest site for Christian pilgrimage in the world, and the miracles which took place there would number in the many thousands over the intervening decades.
This month, in honor of the 150th anniversary, a new book has been released called “Lourdes Today: A Pilgrimage to Mary’s Grotto” The author, Kerry Crawford, writes “Lourdes is a place suspended between Heaven and Earth” and she invites her readers to enter into the healing promise of the famous and remarkable shrine through contemporary testimony, history and firsthand descriptions of twenty-first century Lourdes.
The life of St. Bernadette is remarkable in so many ways. Patricia McEachern has written a superb biography of the saint entitled “A Holy Life: Saint Bernadette of Lourdes” which reveals, for the first time in English, the saint’s very own spiritual insights – thoughts, sayings, advice and prayers. St. Bernadette eventually became a religious sister where she lived a life of simplicity, charity, suffering and profound holiness, dying at the young age of 35.
St. Bernadette’s life and message was captured superbly on film in the now available DVD entitled simply “Bernadette.” Jean Delannoy, one of France’s foremost film-makers, was behind this faithful production and the Vatican has recommended this film as a “sensitive portrayal of this very moving story – it deserves a large audience.” Following the success of and the interest in this film, a sequel was made entitled “The Passion of Bernadette” which follows her life after the apparitions of the Blessed Mother and continues through her religious life.
The remarkable story of St. Bernadette continues on even after her death. In 1908, some 29 years after she had died, her body was exhumed as part of the commission’s investigation into her cause for sainthood. When her coffin was opened, the commission found her body to be both intact and uncorrupted. Thus St. Bernadette joins a small group of 102 known saints, beati and venerables, whose bodies, miraculously, have not decomposed after their deaths. The amazing story of these individual holy persons is told in the landmark book “The Incorruptibles.”
When the Mother of Our Lord appeared to St. Bernadette, she revealed herself to the young saint saying “I am the Immaculate Conception” – a message repeated some 50 years later at Fatima. St. Bernadette lived as a witness to Our Lady – she who always shows us the way to her Son, Our Lord and Savior. To learn more about Mary, Our Mother, the Holy Theotokos, the Queen of Heaven, and the Help of All Christians, try reading “Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion” by Prof. Mark Miravalle of Franciscan University. We think St. Bernadette would approve!
St. Bernadette of Lourdes, pray for us.