Bernadette and Lourdes, 1, February 1858 by Donal Anthony Foley
11 February is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and so this is a good time to remember the apparitions to St Bernadette, and that the Blessed Virgin described herself there as “the Immaculate Conception.” In fact, the apparitions at Lourdes took place in 1858, only four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and, given their nature, it is only natural to see a strong link between the two; indeed they are practically one event.
Bernadette Soubirous, the seer of Lourdes, was born into a very poor family in January 1844; her father was an impoverished miller, and initially they lived at the Boly mill, but the business began to go downhill, and eventually, in 1856, they ended up in a back room of the former jail, the Cachot. By now there were four children, including Bernadette, and the whole family had to live in one damp and dark room. These poor living conditions meant that Bernadette was a sickly child, prone to suffering, particularly from asthma, as well as the aftereffects of a cholera epidemic which retarded her growth. She received very little education, and at the time of the apparitions could neither read nor write, although she was certainly not backward.
Thursday 11 February, 1858, was a cold damp day, and it was decided that Bernadette should accompany her sister and a friend to fetch firewood. The children made their way to the rocky outcrop of Massabielle, about half a mile outside the town. The bottom of the rock face was naturally shaped into an arch from which a cave ran backwards, and to the right, about fourteen feet up, there was a small niche where a wild rose bush was growing. The other two girls left Bernadette, and went to get more sticks on the other side of the canal or mill stream.
Then, to her surprise she heard the noise of wind all around her, despite the fact that it was a calm day and the leaves of nearby trees were not moving, although she could see the rose bush moving gently. Standing above it was a beautiful young woman surrounded by a brilliant light and a golden cloud, wearing a white robe with a blue girdle, and a white veil on her head. She was holding out her hands towards Bernadette and smiling. Instinctively Bernadette took out her rosary beads, but found herself unable to raise her hand to make the sign of the cross. Only when the beautiful young woman had, in the most solemn manner, blessed herself with her own rosary, could Bernadette imitate her. A rosary with a gold cross hung from one arm, her hands were joined at her breast in an attitude of prayer, and her whole bearing gave an impression of holiness, grace, majesty, and tenderness. Bernadette later said: “She is so beautiful that when you have seen her once, you would wish to die in order to see her again.”
On hearing what had happened, and worried that she might have seen something which was of an evil nature, Bernadette’s mother made her daughter promise not to return to the grotto. On Saturday 13 February, she went to confession to one of the assistant priests, Fr. Pomian, and he spoke to Fr. Peyramale, the Parish priest at Lourdes, about what had happened. The latter’s comment was that they must wait and see.
On Sunday 14 February, Bernadette went once again to the grotto with the reluctant permission of her parents. Just before the end of the first decade of the rosary, she again saw the young woman, and she later recounted that the apparition bowed and moved forward, bending over and smiling at her, as Bernadette fell into an ecstasy.
On the following Thursday, 18 February, Bernadette went to the grotto after six o’clock morning Mass, and again saw the beautiful young woman in the niche in the rock, but when she offered her the pen and paper she had been given, and asked her to write down what she wanted, with a smile the apparition spoke for the first time saying: “It is not necessary.” She then went on to extend this invitation to Bernadette: “Would you have the graciousness to come here for fifteen days?” She replied that she would, provided her parents agreed, and then, Our Lady said before disappearing: “I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.”
On Friday 19 February, Bernadette again went to the grotto after the early Mass and entered into a state of ecstasy with about eight people present. On Sunday, 21 February, when about a hundred people were present, the Blessed Virgin again spoke, giving Bernadette her mission: “Pray for sinners,” while looking out over the spectators with sadness. Fr. Peyramale had meanwhile told his fellow priests not to go to the grotto, in case of deceit, and his prudence was later supported by the bishop of Tarbes, Msgr. Laurence.
The growing crowds at the grotto were causing the civil authorities to become alarmed, and so Bernadette was interviewed that Sunday evening by the local Police commissioner, Dominique Jacomet, who considered it his duty to force Bernadette to confess that the whole business was an imposture. But Jacomet failed to shake her assurance or trap her in self-contradictions; becoming exasperated, he eventually threatened her with jail unless she agreed not to go to the grotto.
On Tuesday 23rd, she again saw the beautiful Lady, in the presence of a crowd of about one hundred and fifty. This time she was entrusted with three secrets which she was forbidden to divulge to anyone. The next day the crowd had doubled to about three hundred as Bernadette went forward on her knees and put her face to the ground. She explained later that she had been told her to kiss the ground as a penance for sinners.
Thursday, 25 February, again saw a crowd of more than three hundred present and the discovery that was to make Lourdes famous, that of the miraculous spring in the grotto. Bernadette was part way through her rosary when she began to move about on her knees towards the back of the cave, seemingly following instructions. The crowd were surprised and then disgusted to see her begin to scratch at the ground and drink some dirty water she found there, before rubbing her face with it. Bernadette repeated the words of the apparition just loudly enough to be heard: “Penance! Penance! Penance!” Significantly, these are the same words said by the angel in the third part of the secret of Fatima, as revealed in 2000. Even her relatives were put out at her behavior, but later that day Bernadette explained that she had been directed to: “Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it.”
That evening Bernadette was called before the Imperial Prosecutor, Jacques Dutour; but, as in the case of Jacomet, his interrogation was not a success, and he could not dissuade her from returning to the grotto, even with the threat of imprisonment. And the next day, it was noticed, that water was trickling from the place where she had scratched, and that this flow was growing greater with time.
The next article will deal with the remaining apparitions to Bernadette, and how belief in the healing waters at Lourdes developed.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.