By Father Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes in 1858 are a momentous historical event and a great gift of God to the Church and all of mankind.
Every year at the shrine of Lourdes, Jesus Christ continues to change the hearts of millions of visiting pilgrims, healing their souls and bodies through the intercession of His Blessed Mother Mary. It is precisely in places like Lourdes that the truth of Christ’s dictum about revealing Himself to “babes” is most palpably felt. What determines the course of human history and the eternal happiness of every human being is hidden from “the wise and prudent,” i.e. from those who remain closed to the logic of faith. Rather, it is revealed to those who (like “babes”) place their trust in Jesus Christ and cling to their faith as their most prized possession. Our loving God never ceases to remind us: “If you will not believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9). That is to say, if you do not believe in the mystery of the God who became true man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, you close yourself off from the truth and the possibility of attaining eternal life.
The apparitions at Lourdes
Saint Bernadette Soubirous was born on January 7, 1844, into a poor and devout miller’s family. In 1854, financial difficulties forced François Soubirous to leave the mill at Boly and move his family into mean lodgings in Lourdes, where their circumstances only worsened. François and his wife Louise hired themselves out as laborers. Bernadette took over her parents’ duties at home and looked after her younger siblings: her sister, Toinette, and her brothers, Jean-Marie and Justine. As a result, she was unable to attend school or prepare herself for First Holy Communion.
In 1855, a cholera epidemic struck Lourdes. Many people died. Eleven-year-old Bernadette contracted the disease as well. Her fragile health was ruined. She developed asthma and, later, bone tuberculosis in the legs. She would eventually die of this condition at the age of thirty-four. In early September 1857, Bernadette’s parents sent her to work as a shepherdess for the Avarant family in the nearby village of Bartrès.
A few months later, they decided to recall her home. Returning to Lourdes on January 21, 1858, Bernadette began to attend a primary school run by the Sisters of Mercy from the convent at Nevers and prepare for her First Holy Communion. Before long she was reading and writing with ease. After school she would help her mother with the household chores and look after her younger siblings. François and Louise raised their family in an atmosphere of daily prayer and simple and sincere piety. From them Bernadette received the jewel of living faith and a child-like trust in God.
The memorable day
On February 11, 1858, Bernadette accompanied her sister Toinette and neighbor Jeanne to the banks of the River Gave to collect dry sticks for the fire. To reach the Massabielle grotto (named after the massive rock that towered over it), they had to cross an icy stream. Bernadette removed her shoes and was taking off her stockings when suddenly she heard a strange soughing sound as of wind blowing. “I looked towards the grotto,” she wrote later, “and saw a golden cloud come out of it and, immediately behind it, an exceedingly beautiful Lady, the likes of whom I had never seen before. She wore a white robe and veil. A blue ribbon girdled her waist. Two yellow roses graced her feet. She looked at me, smiled, and beckoned me to approach, just as if she were my mother. All my fear left me, but I no longer seemed to know where I was. I rubbed my eyes, shut them, and then opened them again, but the Lady was still there, smiling and giving me to understand that I was not suffering from a hallucination. Without thinking, I took out my rosary and knelt down on the ground. The Lady nodded her head approvingly, and then took into her hands a rosary, which hung from her right arm. When I tried to begin the rosary and make the sign of the cross, my arm seemed paralysed, and it was only after the Lady had blessed herself that I could do the same. I prayed alone, while she passed the beads through her fingers and remained silent. Only at the end of each decade did she say the Gloria with me. When I finished, she motioned for me to come closer, but I did not dare to. Then suddenly she disappeared.”
When the other girls saw Bernadette on her knees, they started to poke fun at her, calling her a silly devotee. However, after a while they realized that something indeed must have happened, and they began to ply her with questions. At first, Bernadette refused to tell them anything, but in the end she gave in. She told them of the apparition of the mysterious Lady and asked them to keep it secret. However, after coming home, the girls let everything out and Bernadette was forced give her mother a detailed account of her mysterious vision. Louise scolded her daughter, saying it was all a figment of her imagination; and she forbade her to go to the grotto again.
“I do not promise you happiness in this world”
The meeting with the mysterious beautiful Lady (she looked like a young woman of sixteen or seventeen years of age) was such a powerful experience that Bernadette felt compelled to return to the grotto as soon as possible. But her mother Louise strictly forbade her to go. Only on Sunday, February 14, after Mass, did she yield to her daughter’s entreaties and grant her permission. Bernadette and her two companions immediately set out for the Massabielle grotto. They came armed with rosaries and a bottle of holy water. They meant to sprinkle the mysterious figure with the holy water to make sure that this was not a snare of the Evil One. Other girls joined them on the way. Bernadette was the first to reach the grotto. She knelt down and began to pray the rosary. “As soon as I finished the first decade,” she wrote, “I saw the same Lady. Immediately I began to sprinkle her with holy water, bidding her to stay if she had been sent by God, and if not—to go away. And I went on sprinkling even harder. The Lady smiled at me and bowed her head. The more I sprinkled, the more she smiled and nodded her head. When I finished reciting the rosary, the Lady disappeared.” Only Bernadette saw the apparition. Throughout the vision she remained in an ecstasy, totally absorbed by what she saw, as if detached from reality. Her eyes remained fixed on a single point in the grotto.
When her daughter came home, Louise told Bernadette that she would never again be allowed to visit the Massabielle grotto. But at this point, Madame Peyret, an influential and well-to-do resident of Lourdes, burning with curiosity, intervened on Bernadette’s behalf. As a result, Louise allowed her daughter to go the site of the apparitions. On Friday, February 18, after morning Mass, Bernadette set out with Mme Peyret and Mme Millet for Massabielle. The beautiful Lady appeared again and asked the girl, “Would you oblige me by coming here every day for fifteen days?” The girl answered that she would be only too happy to comply with the request. It was then that she heard the Lady say, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
For the fourth and fifth apparitions (February 19 and 20), Bernadette came with a larger group of people. On February 20, the Lady taught her the prayer that she would say every day for the rest her life, though she did not share the text with anyone. During the sixth apparition (February 21), the Lady requested prayers for sinners. It was then that, in an attempt to “expose the hoax,” a sceptical physician, Dr. Dozous, decided to examine the girl during her ecstasy. Deeply moved by her behavior, he sensed the presence of a great mystery. That moment marked the beginning of his own spiritual conversion. His subsequent statement records that during the ecstasy Bernadette’s face took on an aspect of extraordinary beauty—a clear indication that the girl was actually communicating with someone. During the visions, her pulse was regular, she breathed easily, and there were absolutely no signs of nervous excitement.
A call to repentance and conversion
As more and more people began to come to the apparition site, the authorities became very worried. Through interrogations and other forms of intimidation, they did their best to stop Bernadette from coming to the grotto. During the seventh apparition (February 23), the Lady entrusted the girl with three secrets, which concerned her alone, and which Bernadette never disclosed to anybody. The Lady also asked her to convey a request to the parish priest concerning the building of a chapel on the site of her apparitions. Father Peyramale, who was sceptical of the apparitions, asked for a clear sign. He told Bernadette to ask the beautiful Lady for her name, since it was not his custom to trust mysterious strangers. If the Lady would not say who she was, he would take it to mean that either she was an impostor or Bernadette was having hallucinations.
During the eighth apparition, the Lady called for repentance, conversion, and prayers for the conversion of sinners. “Do penance and pray to God for the conversion of sinners,” she said. On the following day (February 25), the Lady pointed to a place on the ground in the grotto and bade Bernadette “drink from this spring and then wash yourself in it.” As there was no spring there, the surprised girl began to dig a hole with her hands. After a while, water began to flow from it. She scooped up the muddy liquid, drank some of it, and washed her face with it, muddying herself in the process. Soon a fast stream of crystal clear water started to flow from the spot. Word of the spring in the grotto spread quickly. That spring has since become a sign of God’s healing grace, as attested to by the thousands of healings, which science is at a loss to explain.
The first miraculous healings
The next day, the Lady did not appear to Bernadette, but it was then that the grotto witnessed its first miraculous healing. A stonemason, Louis Bouriette, had suffered the loss of his right eye in a work accident twenty years earlier. He prayed fervently in front of the Massabielle grotto, rinsed his eyes with the spring water several times, and a wondrous thing occurred. His right eye was restored and he could see again.
The second miraculous healing occurred on March 1. Catherine Latapie had suffered compound bone fractures to her hand and as a result was unable to open it After praying earnestly and dipping her hand in the spring, she had it restored to the state prior to the accident.
Word quickly spread about the wonder-working properties of the Massabielle spring. Before long, special baths were built nearby, where every year since hundreds of thousands of sick people have immersed themselves and experienced miraculous physical and spiritual healings. Studies show that the water is normal and that it has no antiseptic or antibacterial properties. Yet no case of infection or illness has ever been recorded either as a result of bathing in it or of drinking the water in which thousands of people suffering from all kinds of diseases immerse themselves. Here, then, is a great lesson in humility for modern science, for God’s way of operating in the world lies beyond the reach of empirical investigation and laboratory analysis. This is no “magic” water. Immersing oneself in it, drinking it, or washing in it are merely signs of a desire for conversion, for breaking with sin, for placing absolute trust in God and becoming reconciled with Him. When sinners so dispose themselves to the will of God, the water of Lourdes becomes the sign by which God heals their bodies and souls.
The apparition of February 27 occurred before a crowd of some 1000 people. That number grew with each consecutive day. On March 3, about 4000 people showed up, and on March 4, almost 8000. Among them were local newspaper reporters who lost no time in running stories full of ridicule and irony. It was these stories that became the main source of information for the large dailies in Paris and other French cities. In this, Roman Capdevielle’s Mémorial des Pyrénées proved to be the exception. The noted editor’s articles relating to the Massabielle apparitions were models of impartial, balanced, and objective reporting.
The same day (March 4), on her way home after the apparition, Bernadette met a blind girl, Eugénie Troy, who suffered from an eye tumor. After warmly embracing and kissing her, Bernadette asked her to wash her face in the water from the Massabielle spring. No sooner did the blind girl do so, than her sight was restored. News of the miracle spread like wildfire.
“I am the Immaculate Conception”
On the night of the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, Bernadette felt a sudden strong urge to go to the grotto with her parents at 5 o’clock the following morning. Although it was still dark and quiet when they arrived at the site, a large crowd of people—M. Jacomet, the Police Commissioner among them—had already gathered there. Once again, the beautiful Lady appeared before Bernadette while she was reciting the rosary. Several times, during earlier apparitions, the girl had asked the Lady for her name, but each time she received only a smile. This time, however, Bernadette received the reply, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The answer surprised Bernadette, for she had no idea what this strange name meant; nor had she ever heard it before. But she was unable to ask any further questions, for the beautiful Lady vanished.
Bernadette ran quickly to Fr. Peyramale, the parish priest, to tell him the strange name. In order not to forget it, she kept repeating “Immaculate Conception” all the way. What she could not have known was that on December 8, 1854, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. When the parish priest heard the name “Immaculate Conception” from Bernadette’s mouth, he was speechless with surprise, for he understood that the Lady had used a theologically perfect formula affirming the dogma that had been proclaimed four years earlier. Mary is the One Immaculately Conceived, since from the moment of her conception she had been saved from any stain of original sin, in order that she might fulfil her mission as the Savior’s Mother. Only then did the priest understand that he was dealing with real Marian apparitions and that, in her simplicity and ignorance, the fourteen-year-old Bernadette, had become the instrument by which the Immaculate One was delivering her message to the whole world. The apparition of March 25 was a revelation for Bernadette. Only then did the girl realize that the beautiful Lady was in fact Our Lady and not some soul from Purgatory or a hallucination, as many people had tried to convince her.
The final two apparitions
The seventeenth apparition took place on April 7. While in ecstasy, Bernadette inadvertently moved her right hand over the burning candle she was holding in her left hand. For over a quarter of an hour, the flame passed between her fingers, but the girl did not feel anything; nor was there any sign of burning on her hand, as Dr. Dozous observed. When the ecstasy was over, he conducted an experiment on her. He took another burning candle and put it under Bernadette’s hand. The girl instantly cried out in pain, saying angrily, “You are burning me!” It became then obvious to Dr. Dozous that he was dealing with a supernatural fact. He was convinced the apparitions were true.
Meanwhile, more miraculous healings were taking place at the grotto. For instance, on May 2, a desperate mother immersed her dying 18-month-old son in the miraculous spring. The child fully recovered the very next day.
The miraculous healings attracted thousands of people to the site of the apparitions. The authorities, however, tried to stem the growing tide of pilgrimages by whatever means possible. Access to the grotto was blocked. The mayor decided to declare it a site of an illegal religious cult. However, the local bishop refused to endorse his decision and people continued to arrive at Massabielle in large numbers. What is more, people began to petition the Minister for Religious Affairs to rescind the mayor’s decision. Several times, despite repeated threats by the authorities, people pulled down the fence that denied them access to the grotto. As a result, many people were brought up before the Justice of the Peace and fined. Bernadette kept away from the growing conflict between the people and the authorities.
The position taken by the authorities changed dramatically in late September 1858, when Emperor Napoleon III, after a miraculous healing of his son, ordered that the pilgrims be given access to the grotto. His child had regained his health after drinking water from the miraculous spring and eating herbs growing in the grotto.
On May 8, owing to deteriorating health, Bernadette was sent for two weeks to a sanatorium at nearby Cauterets. She continued to prepare conscientiously for her First Holy Communion, which took place on June 12, 1858. From then on, receiving Jesus in Holy Communion would become the central event of her life and her main source of spiritual strength. On July 16, 1858, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, after receiving Holy Communion, Bernadette felt a strong desire to return to the grotto and see the Virgin Mary. She reached Massabielle at sunset. As she was praying the rosary, Our Lady appeared to her for the last time. Bernadette would later relate that the Virgin Mary said nothing to her on that occasion, but that she was more beautiful than ever.
Interestingly enough, throughout the entire period of the apparitions, from February 11 to July 16, 1858, no crime was recorded in the region of Lourdes and no one was sentenced to prison.
The apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes are a clear affirmation of the truth of the Church’s divinely appointed teachings. On July 28, 1858, the Bishop of Tarbes, Monsignor Laurence, appointed a canonical commission to inquire into the truth of the apparitions. The commission questioned Bernadette and other witnesses many times and carefully studied all the alleged miraculous healings. After accepting the commission’s findings, on January 18, 1862, Monsignor Laurence issued a decree recognizing the supernatural character of the apparitions at Lourdes. It reads: “We affirm it to be a certainty that Mary Immaculate, the Mother of God, indeed appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11, 1858 and subsequent days on eighteen occasions at the Massabielle grotto, outside Lourdes, and that all these apparitions were true. Therefore, the faithful may believe in them.”
In 1866, Bernadette entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Nevers and remained there until her death on April 16, 1879. Lourdes went on to become one of the greatest shrines in the world. Today, some five million pilgrims visit the shrine every year to seek healing of mind and body. The Servant of God, John Paul II, twice made a pilgrimage to the shrine. His second visit to Lourdes was also his last journey abroad. “I have now reached the last stage of my pilgrimage,” he stated prophetically.