February 11 is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Let us read some facts about the devotion to Our Lady of Saint Bernadette, the seer at Lourdes. In the biography, Saint Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879, author Monsignor Francis Trochu writes:
“Her devotion to the Blessed Virgin was bound to be ‘particularly tender, particularly childlike.’ Mary, her living ideal, ‘was in her heart very close to Our Lord,’ as Sister du Rais, her neighbor in the infirmary witnessed. You should have heard her say the Hail Mary! What devotion there was in her voice, especially when she pronounced the words, ‘poor sinners!’ When someone boldly asked her if the image of the Apparition was not fading gradually from her memory, she exclaimed disapprovingly: ‘Forget her! No, never!’ And with a forceful gesture she put her right hand to her forehead, saying: ‘It’s there!’ One of her companions suggested: ‘You should paint a picture of the Blessed Virgin for us, for you know what she is like.’ ‘I can’t, I don’t know how,’ she had to answer. ‘For me there is no need, I have it in my heart.’
“Devotion to Our Lady ‘filled her whole life.’ What need had she to ‘meditate’ on the Blessed Virgin. She ‘saw Mary again in everything and everywhere, with her heart and her memory.’ … ‘Whenever she was praying to the Blessed Virgin,’ said Sister Gonzague Champy, ‘it seemed as though she still saw her…. If one asked her to obtain some favor, she use to say straightway that she would speak to Our Lady about it’
Lourdes’ Lesson in Suffering
“One day, on the Feast of the Assumption, Mother Fabre chanced to be kneeling in the chapel a short distance from Sister Marie-Bernard in such a position as to be able to observe her closely. ‘At the words of the hymn: I see that she is my Mother! (Je l’aperçois, ah! c’est ma Mère!), I saw her give a start and almost leap for joy.’”
“As for her Rosary, she must have said her beads for all the rest of her life just as she did at Lourdes. ‘The Rosary was her favorite prayer,’ said a Superior General. Often in the infirmary Sister Champy said the Hail Marys alternately with her. On such occasions, the Sister recalls, ‘Bernadette’s dark, deep-set, sparkling eyes became heavenly. She was seeing Our Lady in spirit, and looked as though she were in ecstasy.’ ‘At night when you retire to rest,’ she recommended to a companion, ‘take your beads and go off to sleep while saying them; do the same as little children who fall asleep saying, “Momma, Momma….”’”
These facts about Saint Bernadette clearly show her ardent devotion to Our Lady. However, there is a curious thing about Saint Bernadette’s life. While it is proven that she had a great devotion to Our Lady, she expressed this devotion only very little. In other words, she did not provide any new facts, reflections, or enrichment of Mariology. She introduced no new way of devotion that could give a new impetus for greater veneration of Our Lady. She was very devout, as can be seen in the selection above, but there was nothing exceptional about her devotion to Our Lady.
On a Pilgrimage of Desolation and Growth at Lourdes
Indeed, Saint Bernadette had a devotion very similar to that of Lucia of Fatima. Her vocation was to reveal the Lourdes’ apparitions to the world. Having accomplished this task, she honored the apparitions by becoming a nun. The Church later canonized her.
Authenticity of the Lourdes Apparitions
The Church does not require that the faithful believe in the apparitions of Lourdes because they are of a private nature. In matters involving supernatural facts, we must only believe in official facts, not private ones. However, denying the Lourdes apparitions borders on heresy because it cannot be admitted that a saint canonized by the Church could have such illusions.
The life and holiness of Saint Bernadette somehow attest to the authenticity of the Lourdes apparitions. The miracles wrought afterward also abundantly bear testimony by proving that grace indeed works wonders in Lourdes.
During the apparitions, the people did not see Our Lady but saw that Saint Bernadette Soubirous spoke to a person no one saw. That invisible person told her to dig with her hand in a particular spot and a spring would appear. No one imagined water might be found in this place. However, the young peasant girl put her hand directly into the earth, and everyone saw the water well up. The spring of Lourdes appeared.
Thus, she prophesied that a spring would marvelously appear and that it would cause many cures, which indeed happened. Both things are miraculous. Furthermore, Saint Bernadette’s holy life attested not only to the authenticity of her visions and the miraculous events in Lourdes but also to her mental equilibrium. Beyond this testimony, however, she did not have a public mission, but a private one. Upon completing this mission, she fell silent.
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Fulfilling a Mission
This completion of her mission is very beautiful. It shows how different devotions develop within the Church and how Providence raises a person in an orderly manner to follow a particular vocation. One receives one task while someone else has another. Our Lady distributes these tasks in such a way that those called do not get involved in something outside of their callings. Everyone is entirely devoted to the task to which he or she has been called. So we have Saint Bernadette Soubirous called to be a living testimony of the Miracle of Lourdes.
There is one detail of her mission that we might highlight. Our Lady communicated a secret to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. This secret was to come to the knowledge of Pope Pius IX. From the nineteenth century to the present, Our Lady gave a series of secrets at her apparitions. She reveals something but wants it to remain hidden. At La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima, Our Lady reveals a secret.
Asking to Be Healed
Our Lady of Lourdes heals people. Which is more difficult: to heal the body or the soul? Neither one is difficult for the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She obtains whatever she asks for. If she obtains so many bodily cures, let us ask Her to heal our souls as well. Let us ask her to change our souls so that our hidden wounds, defects and disorders, often unknown to us, may wonderfully cease to exist by her action.
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We know that the diseases of the Gospel are symbols of moral diseases. Our Lord healed the blind but can also heal the spiritually blind. He healed paralytics but can also cure spiritual paralysis. The commentators tell us that the physical healings He operated were meant to attest to His power to work moral healings as well.
Let us then ask Our Lady to heal our moral diseases. Some of us may be morally blind, others deaf, others dumb, others paralyzed. Alas, who knows if any of these ills makes us worse off than a leper or an epileptic with seizures.
All these illnesses symbolize spiritual states. Let us ask Our Lady to heal us from all this and give us the grace to approach her with a truly renewed soul. That is what we must ask.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on February 11, 1967. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.