Saint Bernadette of Lourdes
There are Saints among us whose greatest virtues have been their lifelong battles against their human nature. Those of us who are privileged to study their lives, have a tendency to ignore what we believe to be their shortcomings, in an effort to go directly to their source of sanctification. When we do this, we miss the teaching the Lord has to give us by the example of His suffering servant. We go for the dream, and miss the journey. The sanctification is in the journey.
St. Bernadette used to complain about the accounts she read on the Lives of the Saints, in that they all seemed too sugar coated. She said of the Saints, “They were human beings with faults and weaknesses, like all of us.” Mother Angelica once said, referring to the authors of lives of the Saints, “They should all be given forty years each in purgatory, for making these Saints seem so perfect.” Bernadette probably felt the same way.
To the little Saint of Lourdes, the many gifts she was given during her lifetime: one, that of beholding the presence of Mary, the Mother of God, eighteen times in the year 1858; another, her ecstasies during those Apparitions, were just that, gifts. She believed that these were aids from the good God to help her get through a sacrificial life amidst a barrage of attacks, and to suppress her own fiery inclination to fight those attacks. She prayed the gifts would offset her imperfections, which included a strong will, a fierce temper, and a stinging tongue. What she may never have reallized is how Our Lord Jesus and His Mother Mary were able to use these traits for their glory.
We once wrote that Bernadette was a simple girl, an illiterate at the time that Our Lady appeared to her, but never did we consider her a stupid girl. Her behavior throughout the period of the Apparitions, her inner strength to hold up against great powers in the government and the Church, are a strong indicator of this. Her life after the Apparitions, and in the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, is proof of her strength.
We never knew much about Bernadette. As a young man, I became enraptured by the Apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette, after reading The Song of Bernadette. I fell in love with Mary, but never thought much about Bernadette. Even the first time Penny and I visited Lourdes, we didn’t see or hear much of the little visionary. This is as Bernadette wanted it. With the exception of the Cachot, where she lived during the time of the Apparitions, the Boly Mill, where she was born, and the Maison Paternelle, where the family lived after the Apparitions, Bernadette is not considered a major part of the Shrine. But Bernadette is very important, both as the intermediary for Mary during that period of time in 1858, and as a role mode for todayl.
Once I got to know her, I came to love her. There is much in Bernadette which can be used in our everyday struggle to reach the kingdom, to be part of the Communion of Saints. We can learn from her. We can use her lifelong struggle for sanctity as a teaching in our own lives.
Bernadette at the time of the Apparitions
Bernadette once said, in reflecting on her life, that the reason Mary chose her was because she was the lowest of the low. “What do you think of me? Don’t I realize that the Blessed Virgin chose me because I was the most ignorant? If she had found anyone more ignorant than myself, she would have chosen her.”
She really underestimated her role in the Apparitions at the grotto of Massabiele in the little hamlet of Lourdes. Our Lady needed one such as she knew Bernadette could be. This was a very important message she was bringing the people of the world. She could not take a chance on trusting a weak person, who could be reduced to tears, or shot down at the first sign of adversity. She needed someone who would have the strength to stand up before the powers of hell, and Bernadette was that person.
Another time our Saint said, “The Blessed Virgin used me like a broom. What do you do with a broom when you have finished sweeping? You put it back in its place, behind the door!” referring to her much sought after life of seclusion at the cloistered Convent in Nevers. Without her being aware of it, she was exhibiting a great deal of depth of spirit, abandonment to the Lord, and humility. Penny and I call our ministry the Lord’s balloon. We believe we are allowed to rise as high as He wants, for His Glory, but when He is finished with us, He will stick a pin in the balloon.
Everything in Bernadette’s early life would agree that she was the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, if we were using the world’s mentality. Her family was so poor that they brought the poverty level of the area down to a new low. Her father hired out for wages just under what was paid for a work horse. Between her mother and father, they could not earn enough money to bring them up to the poverty level. At the time of the first Apparition, they had been reduced to living in a former prison cell, the Cachot, which had been condemned for being below human standards.
Bernadette was a sickly girl from birth. She suffered from Asthma all her life. She was undernourished as a result of the family’s living conditions. She was sent to a farm in Bartres, to live with the woman who had breast-fed her when she was an infant. Only this time it was because there was not enough room, or enough food to care for her in Lourdes.
She loved her family, especially her father, François. When she was sent away to Bartres during her childhood, he always found excuses to visit her there. She was the oldest, and for him, the most special. He grieved for his child, but could not see her being with the family under such austere conditions. So when Bernadette sent countless messages home to bring her back, they were unanswered. However, Our Lady had a plan.
Bernadette had been promised when she was sent to Bartres, that she would be able to study with the Priest there for her First Holy Communion. She was almost fourteen at this time, and the only girl of her age in Lourdes who had not received First Holy Communion. We have to believe that she was under the mantle of Mary all her life, but especially at this time. She was extremely good in her work, which turned out to be her downfall. She was given more and more responsibility as a shepherdess, which gave her no time to go to Catechism lessons. She found herself working in the fields all day long. The two children of the family she stayed with, left each morning for Catechism lessons, while Bernadette went out into the field. This hurt her terribly.
Shortly after she arrived at Bartres, the Priest left to enter a Monastery. When he left the village, the foster-parents of Bernadette felt guilty that they had not kept their promise to let her attend Catechism lessons. The foster-mother tried to teach her at home, but she could only read a little, and Bernadette not at all. In addition, the lessons took place after dinner was over, and all the chores had been completed. Under the best circumstances, it would have been difficult for the child to learn, but this was an impossible situation. She had a problem retaining information to begin with, and that, coupled with the fact that she was exhausted when they began, turned it into a disaster. Bernadette was extremely frustrated.
We see the first signs of her strong will crop up. She took the bull by the horns. She told her foster-mother she had to go into Lourdes one Sunday. When she arrived there, she confronted her family, insisting she be allowed to return home. She wanted to receive First Holy Communion, and would have to begin Catechism lessons at once if she were to receive in 1858. Her parents gave in. She returned to Lourdes on January 28, 1858, just fourteen days before Our Lady came to her.
Her insistence on going back to Lourdes to study her Catechism in order to receive First Holy Communion, shows her strength in the face of adult authority, and really the first inclination we see of the deep spirituality of Bernadette. Prior to this, she had never been considered a holy girl. She had always been good, very polite, and very lovable. But all the teachers, Priests, Sisters and neighbors of the Soubirous family interviewed after the Apparitions, maintained that she would never have been thought of as holy.
This brings to mind the Scripture passage regarding Jesus, when He returned to Nazareth after having begun His ministry. He spoke brilliantly in the synagogue, but the elders said to each other, “But isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son?”
The year 1858 had been declared by Pope Pius IX to be a Holy Year. He asked for solemn public and private prayer. Four years before, this same Pope, who had a great love and devotion to Mary, had proclaimed to all the world, the dogma of her Immaculate Conception, amid a furor that had not yet died down. Catholics were required to believe this. There had been a popular heresy spreading throughout Europe at this time, Pantheism, which claimed that man was equal with God. By this proclamation of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, Our Lord Jesus through His Pope, Blessed Pius IX, declared that with the exception of Jesus, only Mary was conceived without Original Sin. This proclamation caused more problems than it meant to solve. Rumbling went on inside the Church, and outside in Protestant circles. It was outrageous to give this singular honor to a woman, they argued. Shades of Lucifer!
On January 7th of this Holy Year of 1858, Bernadette had turned fourteen years old. On January 28, she returned to Lourdes from Bartres. On February 11, she went with her sister and a friend to pick up dry twigs at the grotto of Massabielle. The Bernadette who walked out the door of the Cachot that day would never return. She was to be touched by Our Lady, and would never be the same. Her life would be changed forever.
“We take you to a place high in the sky, so you can watch the drama of February 11, 1858, unfold, where Heaven and earth meet, the Divine touches the human, and the world is affected for all time. On earth, we see Bernadette and her sister Toinette frolicking through the town, picking up a playmate, Jeanne Abadie. They don’t even know where they are being directed. Their chore is to pick up firewood, wherever they can find it. At the other end of the spectrum, we see the clouds open, and a bright light appears from Paradise, moving slowly towards earth. The little girls wind their way through the town, then down the hill in the direction of the River Gave. From our vantage point, we can hear choirs of Angels singing joyous hymns in anticipation of the miracle that is to take place. If we could see into God’s dimension, we would be able to witness these Angels surrounding and carrying the most magnificent creature the Lord has ever placed on the earth. Slowly, they descend from the Heavens, the drama building. We can feel our hearts pounding as the Angels and the Queen get closer and closer to earth.
The children approach the River Gave. They see a cave on the other side. It’s the Grotto of Massabiele, a garbage dump. But it’s dry inside. They can see sticks and twigs on the ground. Bernadette hesitates crossing the river, for fear she will catch cold. Her mother will kill her if she finds out that Bernadette even entertained the idea of crossing. The girls chide her. She feels a flush of anger and resentment rise up in her cheeks. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade across the water. At the same time a streak of light flashes across the sky at meteoric speed. We don’t know if the other children see it. But as Bernadette walks out of the water, she is thrown to her knees by an unknown force. Before her is a brilliance that is indescribable. It’s dazzling, yet there is a softness, a warmth, a shimmering, but oh, so much more. She looks to an alcove at the right of the grotto. She is speechless. The choir of Angels reaches its highest pitch as the eyes of Bernadette and the Lady meet. An electric beam rivets the gaze of the two together. Bernadette feels her heart swelling. She is afraid it will burst. She cannot breathe. She trembles; her fear turning into excitement, wonderment. She can’t take her eyes off the Lady. It has begun. The Queen of Heaven comes to speak to her people. God puts aside the laws of nature, and creates MIRACLE!”
The above article is from our Book, "The Many Faces of Mary, a Love Story"