Feast of the Immaculate Conception
“Dig Deep for God”
The Immaculate Conception and St. Bernadette (1833-1879)
Bernadette Soubirous was born four decades after the French Revolution. Despite the glorification of this revolution in literature and film, what actually occurred was a travesty rife with offenses against God and his Church.
The revolution started out as something political in nature. It was the perfect storm of a
country over-burdened with taxes and a bread shortage, which some historians argue was instigated by an anti-Catholic secret society, the Free Masons. It didn’t take long for the revolution to grow increasingly hostile to the Church.
“Enlightenment” philosophy believed monks and nuns to be useless to society so religious vows were banned and habits were replaced by secular clothing. Priests who refused to pledge allegiance to the state over the Church were exiled. In 1792, over 200 bishops and priests were martyred under Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, as they were declared “enemies of the State.”
Hundreds upon hundreds of Catholic religious and laity, as well as anyone who did not conform to the regime, were executed via guillotine as crowds watched on with callus delight. The offenses were epitomized in the desecration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where a statue of the “Goddess of Reason” was erected - embodied as a near-naked prostitute. It took years for churches to reopen in France, and even when they did the ramifications of the anti-God sentiments still left an indelible mark on the culture. Still, Christ’s words of his Church rang true “...the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
The family of Bernadette Soubirous proved a testimony to Christ’s words. They were a faithful Catholic family, parents and five children, Bernadette being the oldest. They made their home in Lourdes, which was a little garrison town at the foothills of the Pyrénées. The family suffered a series of hardships including the loss of their second born. The father had a successful career as a mill worker but fell on hard times. This caused the family to be evicted from their nice home and forced to move into a 12x14 foot room, they called cachot, "the dungeon.”
By the time Bernadette was 11 years old, the family was facing the prospect of starvation. To make matters worse Bernadette had serious health problems. She suffered from chronic asthma and stomach ailments. Despite having such a hard life, Bernadette was a good child with a sweet temperament. Her greatest wish was to receive her First Holy Communion, but she struggled with learning disabilities, and so could barely read or write, which hindered learning the catechesis required for the sacrament. Despite not being able to learn dogmas and doctrine, she had devotion. She could say the Our Father and Hail Mary in French and would carry her rosary in her pocket when she worked as a shepherdess during the day.
Sadly, her devotion was not considered enough to green light receiving her First Communion, and she was often called stupid for not keeping up with the rest of the children. Bernadette bore this degradation with humility and would say, “At least I will always know how to love the good God.”
At the age of 14, Bernadette's life took a dramatic turn.
The day started like any other, when Bernadette went along with her sister and friend to collect firewood in a grotto area. Bernadette's companions ran ahead of her, wading across a stream in search for driftwood. Bernadette hesitated because the water was so cold. She worried that it would trigger an asthmatic episode. In vain, she went down the bank in search for a shallow place to cross without needing to remove her shoes and stockings. With no luck, she returned to a spot closer to the grotto and began preparing to enter the water there, when something grabbed her attention. It sounded like a stormy wind. She then saw a figure appear. It was a Lady of great beauty, around 17 years old. She wore a white dress, tied at the waist with a blue sash, and a veil. There were two golden roses at her feet. She smiled at Bernadette, beckoning her to approach as if she were her mother. The Lady’s hands were slightly outstretched, with a golden rosary trailing from her right arm.
Initially Bernadette thought it was an illusion. She rubbed her eyes in disbelief. She instinctively drew out her own rosary and wanted to make the Sign of the Cross, but her arm was like deadweight. Bernadette felt afraid, but the Lady made the Sign of the Cross, and then Bernadette was able to as well. Her fear dissipated, and she knelt to pray the Rosary. The Lady followed along on the beads, but did not recite any of the prayers except the Glory Be. When Bernadette finished her Rosary, the Lady vanished in a golden cloud.
After Bernadette caught up with her sister and friend, she recounted what happened.
They all promised it would be their secret...but not for long, as her sister told their parents everything that night.
Once the secret was out, it initiated both a time of grace and a time of trial for Bernadette. At first, her own parents did not believe her story and forbade further visits to the grotto. But word got out and soon 20 children were begging Bernadette’s parents to let her return to the grotto in hopes they all could see this Lady. Her parents gave in, and Bernadette led the children back to the spot. The Lady did not disappoint. She appeared, but only to Bernadette, who sprinkled holy water on the ground at which the Lady smiled.
Bernadette knelt to pray. Everyone watched. At one point a rock loosened from the grotto cliff and tumbled down towards Bernadette. She was so engrossed in prayer that she did not flinch, and when her friends tried to move her to safety, she was impossible to lift and remained praying.
It wasn't long before this was the talk of town in Lourdes. People hypothesized that the mysterious Lady was a holy soul from purgatory. A parishioner gave Bernadette a pen and paper to offer the Lady so she could write down her name. When Bernadette followed through, the Lady simply laughed at the request. She said, “There is no need for me to write what I have to say. Will you do me the kindness to come here every day for fifteen days?” The Lady also told her, “I promise you happiness not in this world, but in the other.”
Bernadette visited the grotto for the next 15 days. At the seventh meeting, the Lady requested that Bernadette go to the parish priest and ask that a chapel be built at the grotto.
Bernadette knew fulfilling the Lady’s request would be marred with difficulty, but she
went out of obedience. She met with the parish priest, Father Peyramalle, who insisted
she find out who the Lady was before anything could be done.
Time passed and the Lady still did not reveal who she was.
At the ninth apparition, the Lady told Bernadette, "Go and wash and drink in the spring." This was a strange request because there was no spring to be found. Bernadette received further instruction to dig in a sandy spot. She obeyed as onlookers watched. Soon water trickled forth and turned the dirt to mud. The Lady told her to wash and drink from the little stream. The Lady also asked her to eat some nearby leaves, which Bernadette did, and of course the crowd laughed at her while she rooted around in the dirt like an animal.
By the following day, the joke was on the skeptics, because a large spring had formed in the place Bernadette had been digging. A man by the name of Louis Bourriette believed God was at work. He had been blind for years after a stone cutting accident, and in good faith he washed his eyes with the spring water. To his joy, the world became visible to him! A second miracle followed when a mother dipped her baby into the water. The child was sick to the point of death. To the amazement of all, the baby was immediately restored to the pink of health.
Despite these miracles, there was no movement to build a chapel and no official word on who the Lady was. The Lady again requested a chapel be built in the grotto and that processions should be done there. When Bernadette conveyed this to Father Peyramalle he was none too pleased. He thought that Bernadette was on a self-aggrandizing mission, as she had gained such a following in the town. He mocked her, ”I know what we'll do! We'll give you a candle! Then you can be in the procession. They'll follow you! You don't need priests!"
Bernadette gave credit to the Lady for any following she received. Peyramalle demanded a sign. Bernadette had said the Lady appeared by a rose bush, but it was not in bloom due to the season. He told Bernadette that if the Lady made the rose bush flower, he would go with her to the grotto.
For the next apparition, 20,000 people gathered at the grotto. Bernadette had to be escorted by a soldier as she passed through the sea of bystanders. Among the throngs was the mayor, the chief of police, and military personnel.
When the Lady appeared to Bernadette she still gave no answer as to her identity.
There was also no blooming rose bush. It was a humbling meeting and seemed a victory for the doubters.
Days later, it was the eve of the Annunciation. Bernadette stole away to the grotto and there began to pray the Rosary when she met the Lady again. Bernadette recounted: "At last, under an irresistible impulse, the words fell from my mouth, and I begged the Lady to tell me who she was. The Lady did as she had always done before; she bowed her head and smiled but she did not reply. I cannot say why, but I felt bolder and asked her again to be so kind as to tell me her name; however, she only bowed and smiled as before, still keeping silence. Then once more, for the third time, clasping my hands and acknowledging myself unworthy of the favor I was seeking of her, I again made my request...At my third request her face became very serious and she seemed to bow down in an attitude of humility. Then she joined her hands and raised them to her breast . . .
She looked up to heaven . . . then slowly opening her hands and leaning forward towards me, she said to me in a voice vibrating with emotion, 'I Am The Immaculate Conception.’"
At that, Our Lady disappeared and Bernadette ran to tell Father Peyrarnalle. She repeated the words she had heard the whole way so she wouldn't forget them.
The words Bernadette spoke astounded Father Peyrarnalle.
Four years before, Pope Pius IX declared ex cathedra the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: "The Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin."
It was the proof the priest needed, as it would have been impossible for a child who could not even memorize her catechism to know of the dogma. Needless to say, the chapel was built. It stands today as one of the most beautiful and often visited in all Christendom.
After all this, Bernadette chose to dedicate her life to Christ through becoming a religious sister. This was in 1866. Upon entering the convent she was met with jealously and unkindness. A decade later, Bernadette underwent serious physical suffering due to tuberculosis. She was bedridden and told a fellow sister, “I am ground like a grain of wheat.”
By the time she was 35 years old the bones in her legs had wasted away. She wrote this
little note on a piece of paper at the time: "To obey is to love! To suffer in silence for Christ is joy! To love sincerely is to give everything, even grief.”
She departed this life to “be happy in the other” - as our Lady had promised her - on
April 16, 1879.
To this day, Bernadette’s sanctity is reflected in the incorruptibility of her human body, which rests in Nevers, France. The author of the famous work, The Song of Bernadette, put it eloquently: “Death extinguishes a human face in the twinkling of an eye, but death illuminated the face of Bernadette.”