St. Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette Soubirous was born
France in 1844. She died in 1879. She suffered from asthma, which
weakened her lungs and made them susceptible to diseases that eventually
killed her. Her childhood was extremely hard, and the conditions of her
poverty did not help her health. She was not a very bright young lady and
her education suffered because of this - what education there was for a
peasant girl in rural France at that time - but she was kind-hearted and
determined to live the life God appointed for her.
Bernadette is most famous for a series
of apparitions in which she claimed to have seen a young lady appearing
to her. The location of these visions was an out-of-the-way grotto by
the river Gave. As is always the case, mobs of religious crazies and scoffing
skeptics began to hound her. This caused great difficulty for Bernadette.
The apparition had several messages for Bernadette, one of the more striking
being: I cannot promise you happiness in this life, only in the next.
Another message was a request that the priest build a chapel on that spot
(to which the priest replied something to the effect of, Tell your
lady to give me the money first.) The most famous message came when
Bernadette asked the lady's name; she replied, I am the Immaculate
Conception. This gave the both believers (and scoffers) all the evidence
needed to confirm belief (or disbelief), for the term had recently been incorporated
into Catholic dogma (although the concept is very, very ancient in Catholic
theology, dating to pre-Constantine Christianity). Bernadette herself had
never heard the term; when she reported it to the priest she pronounced it
incorrectly and asked, What does it mean?
Not content with that, the apparition later
directed Bernadette to drink from the spring and eat the grass there. Bernadette
saw no stream, so she dug, and after a few moments came to some water
that was welling up from the ground. She had just found a spring that no
one previously knew existed. Quite a few miracles of healing have been attributed
to the waters of the spring, although Bernadette herself never profited
from it (either by financial gain or by health). The Catholic Church does
not attribute miraculous powers to the water, and before declaring any healings
miraculous sends all reported healings to an independent panel of doctors
who sit on the Lourdes medical board (this panel frequently includes non-Catholics
and non-Christians). One example would be the case where a woman with a withered
optic nerve began to see clearly, even though the nerve remained withered:
there is no scientific explanation for why she could now see. (The nerve
did in fact heal some time later.) Currently a few more than 70 healings
are recognized by the Church as miraculous; it is reported that a great
many more than that occur but are never reported. Every year for example
there is an accumulation of crutches at the grotto that are reportedly left
by the healed.
Bernadette loathed the attention the apparitions
gave her and spent most of the rest of her life trying to hide from people
who sought her out. She had a late vocation (back then, this meant 22
years old; today this would be an early vocation and many religious
orders would ask her to go get some life experience before applying). Because
of her health and the crowds that would come to see her, Bernadette was
never able to do the work she wanted and frequently referred to herself
as a good-for-nothing.
People who interviewed her found her to be very
simple and very humble, as well as very sincere and obsessed with truth.
She had a very consistent story about the apparitions, and a very vivid
and detailed story; she was never found to have told an untruth even in
minutiæ. In her thirties she began to forget many details and stated
so in interviews of the time; this loss of memory depressed her greatly.
When she entered heaven the last words on her
lips were prayers to Jesus and to the saints. Her body never decayed and
in a glass case at her convent in Nevers, France.
I visited Lourdes in January
of 2002. It was out-of-season so I was able to avoid the crowds and
the commercialism. It was quite beautiful. The French were extremely nice
to me, especially considering the only French I speak is to say I
don't speak French, do you speak English? (I later learnt I was also
saying that wrong. I now respect the patience of the French.)
It is difficult to recommend references on the subject as they
are typically either emotional and apocryphal (if not flat-out storytelling)
or dry and dull to the point of making the reader forget that God was
at work through all this. The only book I really enjoyed has been
Bernadette Speaks: a Life of Saint Bernadette in Her Own Words by
René Laurentin. There is a wonderful French film called Bernadette
but I have only found it once, in a public library in Jersey City.
If one is interested in facts, the book The
Song of Bernadette should be avoided; the movie based on it is even
worse. On the other hand, if facts are not what interest you, they are
very beautiful stories.