Monday, April 16, 2007

The saint of the grotto: let us not forget St. Bernadette

St. Bernadette Soubirous, 1844-1879Arriving at morning Mass today and opening up the missal, I was disappointed to see it did not include the memorial celebration for the Feast of St. Bernadette. But though the United States missal may not remember you, Fighting Irish Thomas will not forget ...

Bernadette, who was a key saint in matters ranging from the revival of nineteenth century French piety to the belief in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, was born Marie Bernarde Soubirous in Lourdes, France, and was the eldest of six children. Never a healthy child, her family's abject poverty and the fact the eight of them were crammed into a dilapidated basement did not help matters any. Asthma and a long bout with cholera left her weakened and when she went out to fetch firewood on that fateful February day, Bernadette was as uneducated as she was sickly. Although she was fourteen at the time, Bernadette had not yet received her First Holy Communion. But she did have faith ...

On February 11, 1858, a vision Soubirous took to be Our Lady began to regularly appear to her at a nearby grotto, telling Bernadette she must pray the Rosary for the conversion of sinners. Although the Woman's message was a strict call of prayer and fasting, more and more people began to follow the girl to the grotto where She continued to appear. No one saw Our Lady except Bernadette, but Her presence was confirmed when a stream sprung out of the ground on the site, and people began to be healed in its waters. When Bernadette asked the Lady Her name, She replied, "I am the Immaculate Conception," a Marian title that was just declared a dogma by Pope Pius IX three years prior.

Both civil and religious authorities were hostile to Bernadette's claim—the government because they thought she was trying to stir up the people against them, and the priests because they thought she was trying to get attention. But Bernadette's straightforward sincerity (along with the fact she refused to accept any money or profit from the apparitions) finally won the sceptics over. By the time Bernadette entered the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Nevers in 1866, a chapel had already been built on this site and Lourdes was on its way to becoming a major shrine of pilgrimage—just as Our Lady had predicted.

The next—and last—thirteen years of Bernadette's life were spent in this convent, performing menial tasks and serving as assistant sacristan. Here, Soubirous never spoke of the visions unless ordered to do so by her superiors. She even compared herself to a broom, explaining meekly, "Our Lady used me. Now they have put me back in a corner. I am happy to stop there."

But one thing that never ceased for Bernadette was her suffering. She was first given the Last Rites only four months after joining the order, and was to receive them many times in between. She finally succumbed to tuberculosis on April 10, 1879, and was canonized in 1933.

Bernadette was perhaps the most ordinary visionary the Church has ever known. And yet her simple devotion to Our Lady has helped spread faith in Our Lord to every continent, from Lourdes to the many Lourdes Grottos built throughout the world. Also, Mary's "Immaculate Conception" confirmation to Bernadette helped strengthen the infallibility of the Pope in the eyes of the Church's faithful, as well as magnify his primacy to all those with vision in the Protestant and secular world. And though I have never been to Lourdes, I have seen grown men unafraid to pray in public at the Lourdes Grotto at the University of Notre Dame, and that is more than enough to make me a huge fan of St. Bernadette too. "I must be holy," this humble saint said, "because my Jesus wants it." Many have explained sainthood more complexly—but none have said it any better.


JimAroo said...


I am having some problem posting here... I may have been de Googled.

I have reported the missing memorial to Mary Theresa Bernadette. The Queen is not happy.

The story has been Digged, Netscaped, and Reddited.

Tom O'Toole said...

Jim - sorry for the problems - i'm personally a techno idiot - i'd probably report it to Bernadette too! Thanks for your faithfulness - to the blog and both of us. -Tom

Pristinus Sapienter said...


Thanks for remembering Bernadette, who started praying for my sorry excuse of a Catholic before ever I was born.

Ahh, the holiness of such a simple one - refusing honor, of course, but also very likely even more refusing of sin.

Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.