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The Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette when France was still experiencing the aftershocks of its cruel and bloody revolution of the late 1700s. The Reign of Terror had done its best to ridicule and eradicate the Catholic faith, to replace it with a new world order. But Our Lady had other plans and was set to reveal herself in France through the young Bernadette Soubirous in a way that continues to reverberate throughout the world.
By worldly standards, Bernadette may seem like an unlikely candidate for the honor of the revelations. The 14-year-old's family was among the poorest in all of Lourdes, a modest town nestled in the Pyrenees mountains of southern France. In fact, they lived in a one-room abandoned jail. Beyond this, Bernadette suffered from asthma, and her height had been stunted by a bout with cholera in her childhood. She was also considered mentally slow, even by schoolgirls younger than her.
Nevertheless, it was none other than Bernadette Soubirous, whose feast day is April 16, to whom Our Lady deigned to appear a total of 18 times between Feb. 11 and July 16 of 1858. Indeed, it was to Bernadette that Our Lady delivered a special message of love, prayer and penance to all the world and for all time.
The dramatic details of the almost 20 apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette are etched into the memory of her many devotees.
The first apparition occurred on a cold February day when Bernadette left home with her sister and a friend to gather firewood outside of town. While her sister and her friend went on ahead, Bernadette stayed behind near a rock formation.
Suddenly, she heard a "noise like the sound of a storm," but noticed the leaves were not moving except for those on a rosebush surrounding a grotto in the rock. In the hollow, Bernadette became transfixed by a lady dressed in white, whom she described as more lovely than any she had ever seen in her life.
Frightened, she instinctively reached for her Rosary and recited it, after which the lady disappeared. In shock, but with spirits buoyed, she begged her sister and friend, who hadn't seen the lady, to tell no one of her experience.
On her following visit to the grotto, Bernadette sprinkled holy water on the lady, asking her to remain if she came from God but to depart if she did not. The lady responded with a smile, and Bernadette again recited her Rosary.
During Bernadette's next visit, the lady spoke for the first time, asking Bernadette to come to the grotto for the next two weeks. It was during this visit the lady famously told Bernadette that she could not promise to make her happy in this world, but only in the next.
In later visits, the lady repeated the importance of repentance for sins and asked Bernadette to kiss the ground as an outward sign of penitence for sinners.
By this time, Bernadette was facing fierce opposition and ridicule from her parents, her friends and the townspeople, even while the news of the apparitions was spreading and huge crowds were beginning to follow her to the grotto.
Town officials began interrogating her, threatening her with prison if she did not halt the visits to the grotto — an ironic threat, given that she lived with her family in an abandoned jail.
A crucial moment occurred when the lady directed Bernadette to dig at a spot just below the grotto and then to drink and wash her face with the water there. Bernadette obeyed, scratching the ground until she was able to dig out a small amount of muddy water.
When the crowd saw Bernadette's muddy face, they mocked and scowled at her, believing Bernadette to be insane or worse. They left the grotto in disgust, disappointed at not seeing a miracle.
But all that changed when the now famous and miraculous spring began to flow a day later.
During the last apparitions, the lady directed Bernadette to tell the priests to build a chapel at the site of the spring and to arrange prayerful processions to it. When Bernadette relayed the message to the local priest, he told her she'd have to find out the lady's name before he would think about building a chapel.
During the apparition of March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, the lady, at last, revealed her identity. She told Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception," a surprise to all, as Pope Pius IX had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception just four years earlier.
The last time Bernadette saw the lady, she had to find an alternate route to the grotto because police had barricaded the site. She said of that last apparition that the lady looked more beautiful than ever.
To escape public attention, in 1866, at age 22, Bernadette moved to a convent run by the Sisters of Charity, in the city of Nevers, about 430 miles from Lourdes.
She was admitted into the novitiate in the motherhouse there, completing religious instruction and working in the infirmary.
It would seem that after the apparitions, Bernadette's work for the lady was completed. But she lived true to the lady's request for repentance. She offered her almost constant pain and sickness for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. Her mother died at the young age of 41 while Bernadette was at Nevers, prompting Bernadette to remark, "Life is only Heaven's waiting room."
Bernadette herself died on April 16, 1879 at the motherhouse. Her body was buried on the convent grounds, in a special crypt, separate from the graves of the other sisters.
Miracles began to happen at the newly formed spring beneath the site of the apparitions almost at once.
The cure of Catherine Latapie, a wife and mother from a neighboring village, is considered the first miracle of Lourdes. A fall from a tree had left the fingers of the 38-year-old's left hand paralyzed. Though not particularly devout, she had traveled to Lourdes nonetheless, hoping for a cure.
She met Bernadette herself at the spring, and dipped her injured hand in its waters. Immediately, she could move her fingers, reportedly joining both her hands in prayer. On the same day of this cure, she gave birth to a son, who eventually became a priest.
Another of the early miracles is that of Louis Bouriette, who had been rendered blind in his right eye due to a mine explosion 20 years before. Shortly after the last apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette, Bouriette visited the spring, washed his eye with its waters and prayed for a cure. His vision returned immediately. In 1862, medical authorities who could not explain the cure in natural terms pronounced it as being "of supernatural character."
A contemporary miracle involves the 2008 cure of a French nun, Sr. Bernadette Moriau, who suffered with severe nerve pain and paralysis in the lower spine. Her left foot was twisted and limp, and she need a back and leg brace in order to walk.
The 79-year-old arrived in Lourdes in a wheelchair, not expecting a cure but praying for a full conversion to Jesus. "I just went there to pray with others," she has said.
A few days later, back home in her convent, after evening prayer, she felt the urge to take off the leg brace she had worn for so long and to throw off the crutches. At that moment, she could walk — and a few days later, she went on a five-kilometer walk without any assistance.
Sister Bernadette wrote a book called My Life is a Miracle, narrating the story of her physical and spiritual healing.
The saint's life — separated from our own by almost two centuries — has mesmerized people from all walks of life over the years.
One poignant example is Franz Werfel, a Jewish novelist and playwright. Werfel and his wife were making their way east across Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, trying to escape the Nazis.
They moved from Austria after the Anschluss to Marseille in France and then found shelter in the town of Lourdes, by that time a well-known shrine honoring St. Bernadette's lady.
In Lourdes, Werfel became familiar with Bernadette's story and was so taken that he vowed, should he safely reach the United States, to write about what he had learned there. Indeed, he arrived safely in New York in 1940. Keeping his promise, he published the spellbinding historical novel Song of Bernadette one year later.
Werfel's novel was so well-received it served as the basis for a 1943 Hollywood film, also called Song of Bernadette, starring the famous actress Jennifer Jones as Bernadette.
There is yet another miracle to mention here — St. Bernadette's incorrupt body.
As part of Bernadette's canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times, the first time 30 years after her death. Her body was found to be sweet smelling and in a remarkable state of preservation. Her hands, still crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, but the Rosary she was still holding had rusted.
Saint Bernadette's body remains on display at the Chapel of Saint Gidard at the Sisters of Charity in Nevers.
Throughout the apparitions, Bernadette maintained that Our Lady "looked at me as a person talking to another person." By way of these personal interactions with Our Lady, Bernadette delivers this message: The Mother of God is interested in our life, and she personally intervenes in our earthly lives while preparing us for the next.