By Father Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
On Saturday April 19, Bernadette’s body was laid in an oak coffin lined with zinc. The casket was then sealed and interred in the convent garden. Since then, in defiance of the laws of nature, the body has been completely spared the process of decay, and preserves to this day an amazing freshness and beauty.
Bernadette Soubirous entered the convent at Nevers in 1866 and remained there until her death on April 16, 1879. On Saturday April 19, her body was laid in an oak coffin lined with zinc. The casket was then sealed and interred in the convent garden. Since then, in defiance of the laws of nature, Bernadette’s body has been spared both internal and external decay, and to this day preserves an amazing freshness and beauty. Pilgrims visiting the chapel of the Convent of Saint Gildard at Nevers can see the preserved body for themselves. It is dressed in a nun’s habit and appears to be sleeping. Many ask, “Is it really she? Can her body really have been spared the process of decay?” These are questions that we shall here attempt to answer.
The fact-finding process of Bernadette’s cause was completed at the diocesan level in the fall of 1909. According to the regulations of the day, a procedure called “a canonical examination of the body” had to be performed. A detailed official report of the first exhumation can be found in the archives of the Convent of Saint Gildard. There we read that at 8:30 a.m. the coffin was opened in the presence of Bishop Gauthey of Nevers and members of the diocesan tribunal. With the removal of the coffin lid, an astounding sight revealed itself to the witnesses. Bernadette’s body was in a perfectly preserved state. Her face shone with a virginal beauty. Her eyes were closed as if she were peacefully sleeping; the lips were slightly open, the head tilted to the left. The skin was in perfect condition, still adhering to the muscles. A rusted rosary entwined the hands. The nails of the fingers and toes were also in pristine condition.
Two physicians undertook a detailed inspection of the remains. What they found, on removing the habit, was a complete body, as though still alive — supple and integral in every limb. After the report of the examination was written up and duly signed by the physicians and witnesses, the nuns washed the body and re-laid it in a new double casket. The coffin was closed, sealed, and then replaced in the same grave.
From a scientific point of view, the fact of Bernadette’s perfectly preserved remains after thirty years of lying in a damp grave — a circumstance that should have hastened the process of decay (the more so, as Bernadette, while alive, suffered from various illnesses) — constitutes an extraordinary phenomenon, admitting of no explanation.
A second inspection of the body took place on April 3, 1919, with the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, representatives of the town council, and members of the diocesan tribunal in attendance. The examination was carried out in much the same manner as ten years earlier, the only difference being that this time each of the two doctors, Talon and Comte, drafted their reports separately, without consulting each other. Both medical reports concurred perfectly, not only with each other, but also with the one prepared by Doctors D. David and A. Jordan ten years earlier.
In 1923, Pope Pius IX pronounced the authenticity of Bernadette’s heroic virtues and thus opened the way to her beatification. A third and last inspection of body was now necessary. This took place on April 18, 1925, i.e. forty-six years and two days after Bernadette’s death. In attendance were the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, the town mayor, and members of the medical team. Following their swearing-in, the coffin was brought to the Chapel of Sainte Hélène and opened. Once again the body was found to be in a perfect state of preservation. In his final report, Dr. Comte, who supervised the medical team, observed: “The body of Venerable Bernadette was intact (untouched by decay)….[I]t did not appear to have suffered any putrefaction, nor had any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be normal and expected after such a prolonged period of interment in the ground.”
Dr. Comte subsequently published an article in a scientific journal, in which he stated: “What struck me during the examination was of course the state of perfect preservation enjoyed by the skeleton, the fibrous muscle tissue (still firm and supple), the ligaments, and skin. But what was totally unexpected was the state of the liver after forty-six years. One would have thought that this organ, which is so delicate and given to disintegration, would have decomposed very rapidly or hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet under the scalpel it proved to be soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to my attendants, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.”
Fragments of the liver, a muscle, and two ribs were subsequently removed from Bernadette’s body for use as relics. The rest of the body was left untouched. It remained in the Chapel of Sainte Hélène, which was sealed shut until the day of the beatification. Pius XI performed the beatification ceremony on June 14, 1925. On July 18 of the same year, the body was laid in a glass sarcophagus, which was then placed in the Convent chapel to the right of the main altar. The canonization of Blessed Bernadette took place at the Vatican in 1933.
Those making a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Nevers would do well to remember that the glass sarcophagus really does contain the miraculously preserved body of St. Bernadette Soubirous. These are the very same face and eyes that witnessed Our Lady’s apparitions eighteen times at Lourdes; the very same hands that worked the beads of the rosary during the apparitions; the same hands that later dug out the miraculous spring of Lourdes; the same lips that uttered Mary’s name — Immaculate Conception — to the unbelieving parish priest; the same pure heart that loved Love Incarnate with all its might. As the Holy Scriptures tell us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8).”
The enduring miracle of St. Bernadette’s physical preservation is a sign calling us to conversion, to accepting the joyous truth that for God nothing is impossible, and that only His love can lead us from the horrors of enslavement to sin and death to the joys of eternal life. It is also a sign that death is but the beginning of real life in Eternity and that our bodies will rise again on the last day. Let us remember that Jesus Christ freely offers us eternal life in the Eucharist: “Who eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I shall raise him up on the last day (Jn 6:54).”
May we never close our hearts to the gift of eternal life through unbelief, by living our life as if God did not exist, through disregard of the sacrament of Penance, and remaining in a state of sin. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows in his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7-8).
Those living in the darkness of unbelief and sin need to remember that the opportunity to convert, to become a saint, is always present. It is enough to trust in the infinite Mercy of God, for that is when the miracle of the forgiveness of sins is worked in our lives. Jesus says this: “To avail oneself of this miracle, one is not required to go on a great pilgrimage or carry out an external ceremony. It is enough to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to him one’s misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Even if the soul should resemble a decaying corpse, even if in human terms it were impossible to save her and all seemed lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of my Father’s mercy! In vain will you call out, but it will be too late” (St. Faustina’s Diary, 1448).
The above article was published with permission from Miłujcie się! in November 2010