January 2018 Print


by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

Who was Bernadette Soubirous? Born on January 7, 1844, she was the daughter of a miller reduced to poverty. A simple young shepherdess, submissive, sickly, unappreciated, but who had the incredible possibility of seeing, many times, the mother of Our Lord.

The First Apparition

The first apparition took place on February 11, 1858 in the grotto of Massiabelle. Here is the manner in which Bernadette narrated what happened: “I saw a lady dressed in white; She wore a white dress and a white veil with a blue waistband and a yellow rose on each of her feet. Her rosary was yellow too. She took the rosary from her arm and made the sign of the Cross. I managed to do likewise. The Apparition moved the rosary beads between her fingers without moving her lips. When it was over she made a sign to me to come near her, but I did not dare.” The second apparition took place three days later with about ten people present who saw Bernadette in ecstasy. The third apparition, on February 18, was one of the four longest. For the first time, the Virgin spoke: “Would you be so good as to come back here for fifteen days. I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.” The fourth and fifth apparitions took place on the following two days. By then, 30 people were present at the grotto. The next day was for Bernadette her first official questioning by Jacomet, the commissaire de police. The next day the Virgin did not appear, and on her way back from the grotto, Bernadette said in a discouraged voice: “I don’t know what I did to cause the Lady not to appear!”

Dr. Dozous was invited to come to the grotto the following day to observe Bernadette first hand, and to uncover in the name of medical science the “sham of Massiabelle.” Dozous went home deeply shaken in his incredulity. He became, however, one of the most prominent witnesses in the events at Lourdes. On the following day, 300 people were present. The Apparition said to Bernadette: “Repentance! Repentance! Repentance! Pray to God for sinners” and asked her “to climb on her knees into the grotto and to kiss the ground in a sign of repentance for sinners”. The ninth apparition explains the origin of the spring of water. Bernadette explained: “The vision told me to go and drink from the spring. Since I did not see it, I went to drink from the river. She told me it was not there I was to drink and with her finger pointed under the rock. I went there and found only a little brackish water. I put my hand into it but was unable to take any. Then I dug with my hands and so could take some. Three times I threw the water away since it was dirty; the fourth time I managed to drink. She made me eat some of the grass which grew around the spring.” On that evening of February 25th, Bernadette was interrogated by the Imperial Procurator. She was threatened with prison if she did not promise not to return to the grotto, but Bernadette made no such promise. On Friday the 26th, there was no apparition. By contrast, the next day the apparition occurred as 800 people looked on. The apparition indeed came the following day; nearly 1,100 people were there. There was an unpleasant surprise in store for Bernadette: a policeman invited her to accompany him to appear before the Examining Magistrate. Jacomet, the Commissaire de Police and the bailiff were present for the interrogation. This was Bernadette’s third questioning. She responded to their usual threats of imprisonment with serenity and firmness.

On March 1, the twelfth apparition took place. Some 1,300 people were present. For the first time, a priest, Abbé Dézirat, was there to witness Bernadette’s ecstasy. The following day, 1,600 people were present at the grotto. In Bernadette’s words: “The Lady told me to go to tell the priests to build a Shrine there. I went to the parish priest to give him the message. He stared at me for a moment and then spoke to me reassuringly: ‘What is this Lady’s name?’ I told him I did not know. He told me to ask her name. The next day I asked but she only smiled.” The parish priest of Lourdes assumed a position of doubt regarding the seer.

Making Sense of a Miracle

The priest’s uneasiness about the events at Massiabelle provoked him into saying a few rather unkind words. Bernadette was nervous and afraid and forgot to tell him the second part of the message: the desire to make the grotto a place of pilgrimage. Bernadette went back to the priest that evening. He heard her out and then said: “Ask this Lady’s name and when we know it we shall build the Shrine and organize a pilgrimage.”

On March 3, there was no apparition in the early morning, but after school, Bernadette felt that “irresistible force to return to the grotto” and Our Lady indeed appeared. For the third time, she went to see the parish priest. No longer is he uncertain and tolerant but rather skeptical and reproving. The following day, some 7,000 to 8,000 people were at the grotto. The apparition lasted some 45 minutes with the usual prayers, ecstasy and penitential gestures. Once again, the Apparition just smiles when she is asked for her name. The crowd is not happy but the public authorities are. The parish priest refuses to make a move before knowing her identity. There is no apparition for some 20 days. For many, the events of the grotto became a fading memory. Bernadette returned to silence and to anonymity. On the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette felt again that “irresistible force.” The Lady appeared, and Bernadette, again, four times, asked her who she was. Finally, the answer came. Bernadette explains: “She raised her eyes to heaven, joined her hands about her breast and said to me: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’ These are the last words she addressed to me.” Bernadette ran to the priest.

He suddenly came to realize the meaning of the whole thing. He became more and more convinced that the events of Massiabelle were of supernatural origin and that little Bernadette was becoming the messenger to the world of the Immaculate Virgin of Lourdes. Then there was another interval when no apparitions occurred: it lasted 10 days. The events of the 26th had brought the grotto to the forefront of public attention and renewed the influx of pilgrims. The local authorities were alarmed and took drastic measures. On March 27, Bernadette was subjected to a medical and psychiatric examination. The intention of this examination was to confine Bernadette in a sanatorium for those suffering from mental problems and mental imbalance. After two hours, the doctors advised that the whole thing be adjourned. During the 17th apparition, the miracle of the candle occurred. During her ecstasy, Bernadette held her hands cupped around the flame of her candle. Dr. Dozous examined the child’s hands: they were completely unharmed without the least sign of a burn. Two days later he told Jacomet: “Now I believe! I have seen with my own eyes.” The third interval of three months was the longest in the history of the apparitions. During that time, Bernadette made her First Holy Communion, and Jacomet promulgated a decree: the taking of water from the spring at the grotto was prohibited; access to the property called Massiabelle was prohibited; a barricade was going to be erected to prevent access to the grotto; any contravention of this Ordinance would be prosecuted. Bernadette did not mention the 18th and final apparition in her account. Why this silence? Because she regarded it as being private, as exclusively to her personally. The grotto was blocked off, but she felt the irresistible force. She took another path and came to a meadow that lay on the other bank of the river. From this spot, she saw the Immaculate Virgin for the last time. Her ecstasy lasted 15 minutes. When it was over, Bernadette rose to her feet in her customary slow and recollected way. Her Mission accomplished, Bernadette entered the convent of Nevers in 1866. She learnt how to read and write. Her health took a turn for the worse and she died on April 16, 1879. Her incorruptible body can be seen in a crystal reliquary in the convent.

Lourdes Today

A town of 15,000 inhabitants, Lourdes sees 5 million pilgrims every year. The shrines consist of five basilicas. They are, in respective order of construction: The Crypt, The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, The Basilica of the Rosary, The Basilica of St. Pius X, and The Saint Bernadette Church. The first three named are built one on top of the other. The Basilica of St. Pius X has a modern design being built in reinforced concrete. Four basilicas may seem like a lot but, granted the influx of pilgrims, they are not enough. So, a fifth church with a capacity of 5,000 was built. The first building, The Crypt, is the response to the desire of the Immaculate Conception in her 13th apparition. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is noted for its stained-glass windows. On the upper level, they depict biblical scenes involving the Immaculate Conception from the origins of mankind until the solemn definition of the dogma by Pius IX. Below, 23 stained-glass windows narrate the story of Lourdes. It is known as the upper basilica since it stands on top of the other two. It is built in Gothic style. It consists of a single nave 170 feet long and 70 feet wide. The nave and choir are surrounded by fifteen chapels. The bell tower is square-shaped with an octagonal steeple rising to 230 feet. The upper basilica can hold some 600 people. The Rosary Basilica shows a façade with a majestic doorway which encloses a bas-relief of a group of figures: Our Lady holds the infant Jesus in one arm and a rosary in the other. The internal structure is in the form of a Greek cross; its architectural style is, however, Romanesque-Byzantine. The church is 170 feet long, 158 feet wide and can accommodate 2,000 people. Its main attractions are the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary represented in splendid mosaics. The huge mosaic in the apse represents the Immaculate Conception.

The spring of water flows from the bottom of the grotto to the left as you face it. It is protected by a pane of crystal and is also illuminated. The first immersions in this water and the first cures began at once. Every year, about 400,000 pilgrims, the sick and the healthy alike, bathe in the tubs. The water is channeled into a reservoir of some 120 thousand gallons which was constructed under the basilicas. This feeds the 20 little fountain heads on the left side of the grotto and the 16 baths on the right. Hundreds of people bathe in this water daily. The water is changed twice every twenty-four hour period. No one has ever contracted an illness from it. If you go in May as I did, the water in the tub is in fact melted snow from the mountains.

The Miracles of Lourdes

To speak of Lourdes is to speak of miracles. What procedure is used to determine conclusively whether these really are miracles? In 1882, the Lourdes Medical Bureau was set up. Since 1947, a second permanent body has existed in Paris: The International Medical Committee. The doctors have access to the medical records. If the cure is held medically inexplicable, the miraculous cure is or is not confirmed. The criteria used in the evaluation are as follows: The cure itself must be sudden, unforeseen, total, without any period of convalescence, and permanent. It will only be accepted after 4-5 years. The sickness prior must have been grave, organic and objectively ascertained. Since 1858 about 6,000 have been examined. Of these, only 67 have been declared miracles.

When in Lourdes, you cannot miss the Way of the Cross. It winds around a green hillside which rises beside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It extends nearly one mile. The path for the most part is beaten earth. The groups of statues in cast-iron are a little larger than life-size. Recently, a fifteenth station has been added: The Resurrection.

During the pilgrimage season, from Easter to mid-October, two processions take place daily. The Blessed Sacrament Procession begins at 4:30 pm. It begins from the grotto, winds its way slowly along the Gave stream, across the Esplanade and ends in front of the Rosary Basilica. It is followed by Benediction. The Torchlight Procession follows the same route and ends with the singing of the Salve Regina.

The story of Lourdes is destined to be one of faith, a message of hope, a constant call to repentance and prayer, and a beacon lighted by the Immaculate Virgin for millions of people longing to find or better understand the meaning of God in their lives.