On April 15, 2018, my first nephew was born. Though the birth of a new baby is always a precious occasion, the birth of my nephew was especially meaningful. After nine long months of waiting, this precious boy was finally here, resting peacefully in my arms. He was everything I could ever dream of, wrapped in cloth and love. As I looked at the little, wrinkly bundle, I thought about the day: April 15th. It was the day before the feast of St. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes.
Though my family and I are far away, both geographically and chronologically, from the Lourdes of St. Bernadette, the arrival of my nephew reminded me of the littleness of the young saint. As my newborn nephew is physically little, St. Bernadette was both physically and socially small, yet she was a witness to a great miracle. Through the appearances of Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette, Catholics can learn purity of heart and lessons of love.
St. Bernadette -A Look into History
The story of St. Bernadette is like those of many other Marian visionaries: she was born into a poor family and suffered physical ailments (including cholera and asthma). The first of nine children in a Catholic family, Bernadette was born on January 7th, 1844, and baptized two days later on January 9th. As Bernadette grew up in Lourdes, France, it is not a far stretch to assume that she lived a quiet, ordinary life. Despite her bouts with illness, Bernadette was described as having a “spontaneous and generous nature,” but was also very “touchy” (Lourdes, 1). She was also uneducated—in fact, illiterate—and, like many young girls, suffered at feeling excluded by her friends and peers (Lourdes, 1).
A great turning point for our heavenly friend came in February 1858, when she was 14 years old. While gathering wood with her sister and a friend, Bernadette experienced a gust of wind and a vision of “a lady dressed in white…a white veil, a blue belt, and a yellow rose on each foot” (Apparitions, 2). Bernadette prayed the Rosary with “the lady” and when the prayer ended, the lady disappeared (Apparitions, 2).
Over the course of two weeks, Bernadette returned at the request of Our Lady, often engaging in strange behaviors such as eating grass, smearing mud on her face, and digging a up a spring with her bare hands. However, despite ridicule from the Lourdes community, even from those closest to her, Bernadette remained steadfast in her devotion to Mary and, ultimately, Jesus.
As one would expect, the phenomenon and message at Lourdes left many perplexed. After all, why would Mary appear in a dirty grotto to an illiterate girl in a small town? Why not to the government officials, of whom many would surely believe? Of course, this reflects the Annunciation of the Gospels, when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary, a girl not unlike the lowly and poor St. Bernadette, that she will be the mother of God. It is not unusual for Mary to arrive, carrying the Gospel of Christ, in the most obscure spot. This was also evident three centuries earlier when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, a poor farmer, right outside of Mexico City.
As a human, I often tend to separate the physical from the spiritual. Honestly, that’s easy: we often talk about Jesus, angels, and saints as if they are far away from our material world, not to be bothered with our messy physicality. However, the message of Our Lady of Lourdes invites us to engage with the Incarnation of Christ while embracing our own humanity and experiences.
A Message of Love, Sacrifice, Humility, and Purity
According to the official website of the Lourdes Grotto, as Bernadette acted upon the requests of Our Lady, she “acts out the Incarnation, the Passion, and the death of Christ” (Message, 6). Through her obedience to Our Lady, and ultimately to God, St. Bernadette shows us, over a century later, how to live a life of love in the Church.
When asked if the apparition spoke to her, Bernadette replied with “Yes, from time to time…she said ‘Penance, penance, penance. Pray for sinners” (Message, 7). As Catholics, we are called to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus, even if the road is uneasy and uncertain (Matthew 16:24). We are to live lives of continual conversion and change (Message, 7).
At Lourdes, Mary encouraged Bernadette to pray often for those who did not know Christ. Through the act of penance and prayers for sinners, we open our hearts to mercy and love, seeking the ultimate good for our neighbor. This is a tremendous act of love: to ensure that one finds, and accepts, the love of Christ. Moreover, to do penance does not require theological degrees, or in Bernadette’s case, high levels of literacy. It only requires a heart inclined to do the will of God.
Perhaps the most popular statement given by Our Lady at Lourdes is her affirmation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The dogma, which states that “Mary is conceived without [original sin] by the merits of the cross of Christ,” was promulgated in 1854, just four years before the apparitions at Lourdes (Message, 8). It is highly doubtful that Bernadette would have known about the latest dogma of the Church, even four years after its approval. Yet, when asked her name by the lowly Bernadette, Our Lady replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
A beautiful statement from the Lourdes Shrine says that Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, was (and is) “wholly inhabited by God. In this way, the Church and every Christian should allow themselves to be inhabited by God in order to become immaculate” (Message, 9). In an indirect way at Lourdes, Mary entreated Bernadette and other small souls to strive towards a perfect union with God. It is through the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession that we can strive towards holiness and imitate the Immaculate Heart of Mary and achieve union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
A Reminder for Little Hearts
Today, as my nephew is one month old, a physically little person, I still ponder the life and witness of St. Bernadette, little in the world’s eyes, and also spiritually little in her humility and simplicity. In the grotto, Our Lady of Lourdes taught Christians that life is holy and sacred: we are called to a constant state of conversion through penance, but we are also called to strive for holiness each and every day. We are not to be detached from our physical bodies and lives, but to use our existence as a channel of God’s infinite love and mercy. At the end of our lives, may we look back with fondness, and be able to say in the words of St. Bernadette, “I [did] everything for Heaven, my true home.”