In just over a week, Pope Benedict XVI will be in Lourdes, France to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette Soubirous. From September 13-15 he will be at the shrine, after spending the previous day in Paris. In honor of the anniversary, the Pope will visit the grotto where the apparitions occurred, address pilgrims to the site, visit the chapel where St. Bernadette made her First Communion, and celebrate Mass, among other things. The 150th anniversary celebration of Our Lady of Lourdes lasts from December 8, 2007 until December 8, 2008 – both beginning and ending on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The actual apparitions took place between February 11, 1858 and July 16, 1858, with 18 apparitions altogether. Today Lourdes is one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world, and has been the site of many miracles.
On February 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was down by a grotto in the rock Massabielle in the small town of Lourdes. She heard a rustling noise, turned and saw the vision of a beautiful lady standing in a small hollow in the rock, and fell to her knees. She said the Rosary as the lady followed along, and once she was done, the vision smiled and disappeared. Bernadette returned a few days later and once again saw the vision. During the third apparition on February 18, the vision asked her to return every day for a fortnight, to which Bernadette agreed. It didn’t take long for people to start to wonder if she was making this up for profit, or if she was simply crazy. After she revealed the spring under the grotto, which almost immediately began to cause miraculous healings, her credibility (and that of the apparitions) grew. Between February 18, when she had been told to come every day for the fortnight, and March 4, Bernadette saw the vision all but two days. The next apparition took place on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, at which time the lady finally told Bernadette who she was – the Immaculate Conception, a dogma that had only been declared four years previously. Mary also appeared on April 7 and, finally, July 16. The crowds who heard about the apparitions and came to watch had grown steadily bigger, to the point that by the time of the final apparition local police had closed off access to the grotto to discourage pilgrims wanting to see it. Bernadette had to see Mary for the last time from across the Gave river, although to her, Mary appeared no farther away than she had been for any of the other apparitions.
Bernadette, who had always been plagued with sicknesses, eventually joined a convent when she was 22 and lived at the convent in Nevers, France, until her death on April 16, 1879 at age 35 after a battle with tuberculosis and other ailments. Following the apparitions until her death, she was often visited by people wanting to see the girl who had seen Mary. It was a cross she felt she had to bear, because she loved her privacy but didn’t want to deny people if it could inspire them. Her body was exhumed in 1908 and found to be incorrupt, and today it is viewable in the convent chapel in Nevers. She was declared a saint on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1933, and her feast is celebrated April 16.
It may seem late in the anniversary year to be acknowledging the anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, but that’s the beautiful thing about year-long anniversary celebrations: we still have three months to celebrate this anniversary! Now is the perfect time to get resources, if you haven’t yet, related to this wonderful event in the Church’s history. Aquinas and More has a special section set up for the anniversary celebration of Our Lady of Lourdes, including articles and links there so you can learn more about Lourdes, Bernadette, the anniversary and the Pope’s visit.