We woke this morning to a warm humid day with high gray skies, and, after breakfast, set out for the Grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to Bernadette. As we worked our way along the crowded Rue de Bernadette to Saint Joseph’s Gate, past curio shops (which today seem quaint) and accompanied by white clad nurses pushing wheel chairs and pulling small carts carrying the malades, I thought about Bernadette’s amazing story. Here is an adaptation from my account inOfferings.
On February 18, 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a “beautiful Lady” in the Massabielle Grotto on the River Gave southeast of Bordeaux.
The nearly destitute Soubirous family had moved from a mill to a former jail, the cachot. A chronic asthmatic and of simple intelligence, Bernadette was unschooled until age thirteen. On that extraordinary day in February, as she gathered firewood with her sister and a friend, a “gust of wind” drew her gaze to the grotto where she saw “a Lady in white.” Bernadette prayed the rosary with the Lady. The Lady asked her to return for fifteen days, and Bernadette obeyed, finding a way to get to the grotto when she felt she must.
On February 24, Bernadette witnessed the eighth apparition. The Lady asked her to kiss the ground, scratch the soil, and wash in its waters. A curious crowd had gathered by this time, and they watched the young girl eat dirt and smear her face. The following day a spring bubbled from the earth.
Healings began. On March 1, Catherine Latapie, thirty-eight, thrust her deformed hand into the pool from the spring, and the hand returned to normal. Bouriette Louis, fifty-four, was cured of blindness in his right eye, and Henri Busquet, fifteen, was healed of tuberculosis tumors of the neck.
On March 2, during the thirteenth apparition in the grotto, the Lady commanded, “Let the people come in procession and let a chapel be built here.” Bernadette reported this to her parish priest, but he did not believe her. She urged him again that evening. He replied she must ask the Lady her name. On March 25, the Lady answered, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
When Bernadette reported this, the priest said, “But what are you saying? Do you know what that means?”
“No, but I kept saying the name to myself all the way here,” Bernadette replied.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, decreed by Pope Pius IX four years earlier and a popular belief since the early Middle Ages, claimed that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, a condition necessary, it was thought, for her son to be born without sin. Bernadette’s clear ignorance of this doctrine convinced the priest that the apparitions were real, and he told his bishop.
The healings continued. On July 6, two-year-old Justin Bouhort was cured of terminal paralysis when his mother immersed him in the spring.
The local authorities began to interrogate Bernadette. Throughout months of intense scrutiny and badgering (for the popularity of the spring had drawn thousands, threatening civil unrest in the village of Lourdes), she remained simple and straightforward. Finally, she was believed.
The devout Empress Eugenie in nearby Biarritz heard about the miraculous waters and gave some to her child suffering from tuberculosis. The boy recovered the following day. On October 5, 1858, his father, Napoleon III, opened the grotto to the public.
The waters of the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes continue to heal, the sixty-fifth documented miracle announced September 21, 2005. It is estimated that approximately four thousand were cured in the fifty years following the shrine’s opening (see http://www.lourdes-france.com/). The waters draw pilgrims, sick in soul as well as body, and healings of the heart would be impossible to document and too numerous to count.
From Easter through October, Lourdes, population seventeen thousand, hosts five million pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, including seventy thousand sick and handicapped.