Saint Bernadette Soubirous
By Sr. Maria Cristina
Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844; she was the eldest child of a family of six. Her parents were Francis and Louise Soubirous. In the early years of Bernadette's life she lived in Bartres, about three miles from Lourdes. Bernadette returned to Lourdes and was cared for by her Godmother until 1849. In 1852-1853, the family fell even further into poverty and they were turned out of their rented home. A cousin had pity on them and gave them a spare room to live in: an old prison cell the police had abandoned because it was so unhealthy. The family clung to their faith especially during this difficult time, praying evening prayer in common, going to Sunday Mass and even daily Mass when possible, reciting the Holy Rosary together as a family. Bernadette was struck with cholera in 1855 and from that time on she was asthmatic and frail. In 1857 Bernadette returned to Bartres, working as a servant until January 1858.
The apparitions of Our Lady
Bernadette recounted the apparitions:
The first time I went to the Grotto, was Thursday, February 11, 1858. I went to gather firewood with two other little girls (her little sister Toinette and her friend Jeanne Abadie). When we got to the mill of Savy, I asked the other two if they would like to see where the water of the mill joins the Gave. They said yes. From there we followed the canal. When we arrived there at the foot of the rock Massabielle we found ourselves before a grotto. As they could go no further, my two companions prepared to cross the water. Then I went a bit further to see if I could cross without taking my stockings off, but without success. I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my eyes towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still. I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary. The Lady made a sign for me to approach, but I was seized with fear and I did not dare. Then I put my hand into my pocket and took my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but in vain. The Lady took the rosary that she held in her hands and she made the sign of the cross. I took my rosary again and I was able to make the sign of the cross. I knelt down and said my rosary. The Vision slipped the beads of her rosary between her fingers, but she did not move her lips. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared. As we returned, I asked my companions if they had seen anything. “No” they replied.
The third time I went to the grotto with a few grown-ups who advised me to take paper and ink and to ask to write if she had anything to say. I told the Lady. She smiled and said that it was not necessary for her to write, she wanted only for me a favor of coming for a fortnight. I told her that I would. On February 25, 1858, The Lady told me that I should go and drink at the fountain and wash myself. Seeing no fountain I went to drink at the Gave. She said it was not there. She pointed with her finger that I was to go in under the rock. I went and I found a puddle of water, which was more like mud, and the quantity was so small that I could hardly gather a little in the hollow of my hand. The fourth time I was able to drink it. She made me eat the grass growing in the same place where I had drunk. The Vision disappeared.
Seventeenth Apparition: Dr Dozous is present, as a scientific observer. He wants to control medically the behavior of Bernadette during her ecstasy. He is gratified beyond what he had expected. The flame of big candle burns between Bernadette’s hands and her fingers for several minutes. Bernadette does not seem to suffer from it. Dozous examines, nothing shows, he goes home converted.
Visit from Monseigneur Forcade, Bishop of Nevers
He questions Bernadette about her future, “Why would you not become a nun?” Bernadette objects stating that she is poor, frail and ignorant. A few days later Mgr. Forcade speaks to the Mother General, Mother Louise Ferrand, at Nevers. His proposal is received without enthusiasm because Bernadette will likely be a permanent patient in the infirmary and she cannot do much. Bernadette wants to be a nun, but is uncertain in what Order. First of all, she thinks of the Carmelites. L’Abbè Peyramale reminds her of her lack of health. Bernadette finally makes her decision. She chooses the Sisters of Nevers, but ill health retards her departure. Bernadette started her postulancy at Lourdes and she takes part in the clothing ceremony on the 29th of July. Soon her condition gets worse and she receives Extreme Unction for the second time. Monseigneur Forcade authorizes her to anticipate the time of her religious profession. That evening she feels better and takes up again the life of the Novitiate, at least in part. After completing her period of Novitiate, in spite of her state of illness, Bernadette makes her religious profession. On the evening of the ceremony, the newly professed nuns received from the Bishop and from the Mother General their obedience, that is, they learn what would be their work in one of the houses of the congregation. Mother General had decided to keep Bernadette in Mother house which is a great privilege. A veritable scenario had been composed with the help of Mgr. Forcade so that Bernadette would not risk being proud on this account. Bernadette, Father Douce and the Superiors knew that the message of Lourdes was God’s will and that Bernadette should live a life of prayer, suffering, silence and sacrifice in Nevers. Bernadette acquiesced with all her heart in this expression of the will of God.
On March 28th, Bernadette received Extreme Unction for the fourth time. On the evening of April 15th, her condition worsened. The next day, Sister Nathalie Portat relates, “About three in the afternoon, the invalid seemed to be a prey to the tortures of unutterable interior sufferings.” One sister and two infirmarians fall to their knees and Bernadette joins them in their prayers. Then with an expression of sorrow and complete surrender, she raises her eyes to heaven, stretches her arms out in the form of the Cross and cries out aloud saying, “My God!” Then she lets them fall and unites herself again to the prayers of her companions. A few moments later, Bernadette makes an expressive gesture, asking to drink. She makes a big sign of the Cross, seizes the glass that is handed to her, twice swallows a few drops and then bending her head she gently yields up her soul to the Creator. St. Bernadette died on April 16, 1879 at the age of thirty-five.
In 1925 Pope Pius XI beatified her and he canonized her on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1933, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the apparitions. At the fourth apparition, Bernadette noticed that she had to go more slowly to keep time with the Lady who made the sign of the Cross in a deliberate and solemn way. From that time on Bernadette prayed more slowly, reverently and devoutly. It was at the sixth apparition that our Lady said to Bernadette, “Pray to God for sinners.” Pray for sinners, especially for the dying. At the eight apparition, our Lady invited Bernadette to come closer and exclaimed, “Penitence, penitence, penitence.” Bernadette repeated the same word three times and dragged herself on her knees to the entrance of the grotto. During the sermon he preached at Lourdes in 1935, Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) said, “The poor little Soubirous girl must cry out to this proud and pleasure-seeking world, ‘Pray, penitence, penitence, penitence.’ Be still O Bernadette, we have understood. In your call we recognize the echo of the one coming from the Cross, the Cross, the Cross.” Thousands of sick people have been miraculously cured at Lourdes, but the sick people who make a pilgrimage to Lourdes and are not cured do not go home empty-handed. It is a remarkable fact that practically all of them return, not disappointed or dissatisfied, but strengthened in their faith, blessed with peace of soul, and fully resigned to God’s will and the will of our Lady which is the same as that of her Divine Son. “If I were sick of some deadly disease,” wrote Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, “and it were revealed to me that I must die, yet none the less I should go to Lourdes; for, if I should not be healed by Mary, I could at least learn how to suffer as a Christian ought.” May all who suffer pain, illness, or disease realize that they are chosen to be saints, and know that they are joined to Christ, in his suffering for the salvation of the world.