PART ONE OF TWO
On January 9, 1844 in Lourdes, a town at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwest France, two-day-old Bernadette Soubirous was being baptized. Much to the embarrassment of her relatives, she wailed incessantly throughout the entire ceremony. “All she does is cry,” her godfather complained on the way home. “She’ll be a bad one!”
Bernadette, the first child of the miller François and his wife, Louise, spent the first 10 years of her life at the Boly Mill, which her father operated. Then, in 1854, the business fell on hard times. The family, which now had grown to six, was evicted and forced to move into the dungeon room of a former prison, considered too damp and unhealthy to house criminals any longer. Despite their extreme poverty and deplorable living conditions, the Soubirous were devout and close-knit family.
Spirited, fun-loving Bernadette was petite and pretty, with a round face, beautiful chestnut hair and gentle, velvety dark-brown eyes. As the eldest daughter, she cheerfully and efficiently performed all the traditional family duties expected of her. Although of delicate health, she was to all outward appearances an ordinary, unremarkable young girl. But on February 11, 1858, when Bernadette was 14, she had an experience that would change her life beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
While gathering wood in the grotto at Massabielle, she saw an indescribably beautiful young lady dressed in a white veil and a white gown tied with a blue sash, standing in a niche above her. The Lady had a rosary on her arm and golden roses on her bare feet. She smiled at Bernadette and held out her arms in welcome. The astonished girl fell to her knees, instinctively reached for her rosary, and began to pray.
This was the first of 18 apparitions occurring over a five-month period. During the third apparition, the Lady spoke for the first time. With a tender smile, she asked Bernadette, “Would you have the kindness come here for 15 days?” At Bernadette’s consent, the Lady added, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
For many weeks, Bernadette had no idea who the Lady was; she referred to her simply as “Aquero” (“that one”). When, at the urging of her companions, Bernadette offered the Lady pen and paper to write her name, the Lady laughed gently and replied, “It is not necessary.” On February 25, at the Lady’s direction, Bernadette unearthed an underground spring, which ever since has been a miraculous source of spiritual and physical healing.
“Aquero” finally revealed her identity during the 16th apparition on March 25, feast of the Annunciation. Folding her hands and raising her eyes to heaven, she said: “Que soy era Immaculada Counchetsiou (I am the Immaculate Conception).” So as not to forget, Bernadette silently repeated the unfamiliar words all the way to the rectory, where she dutifully reported them to the pastor, Fr. Peyramale. It was only after the priest explained the meaning of the words to her that Bernadette finally knew that “Aquero” was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In July 1866, Bernadette left Lourdes forever to join the order of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers, where she took the name Sr. Marie-Bernarde and served as Infirmarian and Sacristan. Her health continue to decline steadily, and she died on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35. She was beatified on June 14, 1925 and canonized on December 8, 1933. She is buried at the Convent of St. Gildard at Nevers. Her body remains mostly incorrupt to this day.
THE SPIRITUALITY OF BERNADETTE
Bernadette’s holiness was humble, straightforward, and unpretentious. She possessed no great knowledge of theology; she was, in fact, a poor student who struggled to memorize her lessons. Her nurse, Marie Lagues, became so frustrated trying to teach the young Bernadette catechism, she threw a book across the room and shouted at the crying girl, “You’ll never know anything!”
Bernadette did not perform heroic deeds or suffer martyrdom; she died quietly in a French convent after a long and painful illness. She did not seek out suffering or extreme mortification, but accepted with grace and courage the many trials, pain, and humiliations life handed her.
She has been compared with St. Therese of Lisieux, who was 6½ years old when Bernadette died in 1879. In actuality, Bernadette was living the “Little Way” years before Therese was born. Yet, unlike Therese, who left such prolific spiritual writings that she was declared a Doctor of the Church, Bernadette has been called “the most secretive of all the saints,” because she was not given to deeply analytical, sentimental, or effusive discourses on spiritual matters. She lived her faith naturally and instinctively.
In this simplicity lies Bernadette’s appeal. She is a model we can emulate, someone whose common-sense spirituality is down-to-earth and approachable. In fact, Bernadette herself insisted on learning about the faults and spiritual trials of the saints, which humanized them and inspired her to overcome her own shortcomings. Similarly, in this series we will explore the virtues and struggles of this charmingly simple, humble saint.
Mirror of Mary
Like Mary of Nazareth, Bernadette’s life was one of poverty, humility, obedience, fortitude, and total dedication to doing the will of God. In his excellent biography, Bernadette Speaks, Fr. Rene Laurentin writes: “Chosen by God, Bernadette splendidly demonstrated the happiness of the poor. This child, unknown or disregarded, would be proclaimed blessed by all.” Father Raffin, a witness at Bernadette’s beatification process, stated: “She delighted in saying that if she had been chosen…by the Blessed Virgin, it was because of her littleness, her lowliness, so that all honor would revert to the Blessed Virgin and to the glory of God.”
Bernadette did not take pride in the great spiritual favors she had been accorded or feel she deserved them; yet neither did she resort to contrived displays of false humility. Her attitude was well-balanced and tinged with good-natured humor. “The Blessed Virgin picked me up like a pebble,” she would remark. Bernadette’s humility was the result of her awareness of being only an instrument of the Divine, of being nothing without God’s great love. “I was like a broomstick for the Blessed Virgin. When she no longer needed me, she put me in my place behind the door,” she said, adding happily, “Here I am and here I’ll stay!”
For Bernadette, poverty was a means of preserving humility. “I want to stay poor,” she told a journalist who was laying out before her the prospect of wealth. She repeatedly turned down gifts of money that well-meaning people tried to press on her and her family. “It burns me!” she would say.
Even in the convent, she received many visitors who wanted to see her and hear about her extraordinary experiences. These visits became a great trial to Bernadette, who wanted nothing more than to remain hidden and be just an ordinary nun. She did, however, dutifully see visitors when directed to do so by her superiors.
One evening, a woman named Felicitie Benoit visited the convent and hoped to meet the famed visionary. While taking a walk with a short, unfamiliar nun, Felicitie asked if she could see Bernadette. “Oh, Mademoiselle!” the sister replied, “Bernadette is just like everyone else!” Felicitie later repeated to another nun her request to see Bernadette. “What?” the sister said in surprise. “You didn’t recognize her? Why, just a little while ago you were strolling with her!”
Sr. Marthe du Rais, a contemporary of Bernadette’s, described her humility: “When she received undeserved reprimands, she would say, ‘The good Lord sees my intentions. Fiat!’ and preserve the same serenity of soul. She remained friendly as before towards people who had caused her pain.” But Bernadette was realistic enough to know that pride is an elemental part of human nature. During a discussion on self-esteem, she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and said, “Let her who doesn’t have any, put her finger here.”
What hurt Bernadette most was feeling useless and being called “good for nothing.” But she accepted this without bitterness, remaining always grateful to God for the many graces she had received, and to the Congregation at Nevers, whom she felt had accepted her out of charity. Like Therese of Lisieux, she wanted to do great and wonderful deeds for God, but was prevented from doing much because of poor health. She once referred to being sick as “her job.” Believing she was a burden on the motherhouse, especially as her health deteriorated, she would say, “I’m good for nothing. The only thing I can do is pray.”
Obedience did not come easily to Bernadette, because of her quick temper, strong will, and exuberant personality. She found it hard to adjust to the strict and confining life of the convent, and sometimes reacted spontaneously despite her best efforts to conform. She would get discouraged, but this only caused her to depend more totally on God’s grace. “How I need the help of God!” she would exclaim.
Perhaps the hardest test of Bernadette’s obedience was the strict order of her superiors at Nevers not to speak to her fellow nuns about the visions of Lourdes. She naturally would have longed to share her extraordinary experience, and the other sisters were bursting with curiosity. Yet, with unflinching obedience, she kept silent about it.
“Above all, the depth of her obedience was dependent on its relationship to God,” writes René Laurentin. “He is the one whom she obeyed in all things.”
(In Part Two: Bernadette’s characteristics and challenges)