Religious Concerns

St. Benadette Soubirous

My job is to inform, not to convince.
— St. Bernadette

St. Bernadette Soubirous Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France in 1844. She died in 1879. She suffered from asthma, which weakened her lungs and made them susceptible to diseases that eventually killed her. Her childhood was extremely hard, and the conditions of her poverty did not help her health. She was not a very bright young lady and her education suffered because of this - what education there was for a peasant girl in rural France at that time - but she was kind-hearted and determined to live the life God appointed for her.

Bernadette is most famous for a series of apparitions in which she claimed to have seen a young lady appearing to her. The location of these visions was an out-of-the-way grotto by the river Gave. As is always the case, mobs of religious crazies and scoffing skeptics began to hound her. This caused great difficulty for Bernadette. The apparition had several messages for Bernadette, one of the more striking being: I cannot promise you happiness in this life, only in the next. Another message was a request that the priest build a chapel on that spot (to which the priest replied something to the effect of, Tell your lady to give me the money first.) The most famous message came when Bernadette asked the lady's name; she replied, I am the Immaculate Conception. This gave the both believers and scoffers all the evidence needed to confirm belief or disbelief, for the term had recently been incorporated into Catholic dogma, though the concept dates to pre-Constantine Christianity. Bernadette herself had never heard the term; when she reported it to the priest she pronounced it incorrectly and asked, What does it mean?

Not content with that, the apparition later directed Bernadette to drink from the spring and eat the grass there. Bernadette saw no stream, so she dug, and after a few moments came to some water that was welling up from the ground. She had just found a spring that no one previously knew existed. Quite a few miracles of healing have been attributed to the waters of the spring, although Bernadette herself never profited from it (either by financial gain or by health). The Catholic Church does not attribute miraculous powers to the water, and before declaring any healings miraculous sends all reported healings to an independent panel of doctors who sit on the Lourdes medical board (this panel frequently includes non-Catholics and non-Christians). One example would be the case where a woman with a withered optic nerve began to see clearly, even though the nerve remained withered: there is no scientific explanation for why she could now see. (The nerve did in fact heal some time later.) Currently a few more than 70 healings are recognized by the Church as miraculous; it is reported that a great many more than that occur but are never reported. Every year for example there is an accumulation of crutches at the grotto that are reportedly left by the healed.

Bernadette loathed the attention the apparitions gave her and spent most of the rest of her life trying to hide from people who sought her out. She had a late vocation (back then, this meant 22 years old; today this would be an early vocation and many religious orders would ask her to go get some life experience before applying). Because of her health and the crowds that would come to see her, Bernadette was never able to do the work she wanted and frequently referred to herself as a good-for-nothing.

People who interviewed her found her to be very simple and very humble, as well as very sincere and obsessed with truth. She had a very consistent story about the apparitions, and a very vivid and detailed story; she was never found to have told an untruth even in minutiæ. In her thirties she began to forget many details and stated so in interviews of the time; this loss of memory depressed her greatly.

When she entered heaven the last words on her lips were prayers to Jesus and to the saints. Her body never decayed and remains in a glass case at her convent in Nevers, France.

I visited Lourdes in January of 2002. It was out-of-season so I was able to avoid the crowds and the commercialism. It was quite beautiful. The French were extremely nice to me, especially considering the only French I speak is to say I don't speak French, do you speak English? (I later learnt I was also saying that wrong. I now respect the patience of the French.)

It is difficult to recommend references on the subject as they are typically either emotional and apocryphal or dry and dull to the point of making the reader forget that God was at work through all this. The only book I really enjoyed has been Bernadette Speaks: a Life of Saint Bernadette in Her Own Words by René Laurentin. There is a wonderful French film called Bernadette but I have only found it once, in a public library in Jersey City.

The book and film, The Song of Bernadette, involve some dramatization, and should not be considered pure history. However, it was pointed out to me that the book’s author, Franz Werfel, was a Jew from World War II-era Czechoslovakia who took refuge at Lourdes and vowed that if he and his wife escaped, he would write a novel about Bernadette’s life.