The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes is celebrated on February 11.
St. Bernadette Soubirous was canonized on December 8, 1933, and her feast day is April 16.
Everyone knows a little about the story of Lourdes. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared as a beautiful lady to an impoverished shepherd girl in a grotto in France.
Healing waters sprang up where the lady told the girl to dig, drawing many pilgrims—now over six million every year. The shepherdess was immortalized in photographs, holy cards, and even a Hollywood movie. They show an angelic young woman, hands clasped in prayer, eyes piously raised to the heavens.
My ideas of St. Bernadette Soubirous were formed by such images. And so I was surprised, as I read more about her, to find not a sweetly unreal figure but a lively, quick-witted young woman with a strong will.
Although simple, down-to-earth, and basically devout, Bernadette was not a saint when the apparitions began. Neither did she become one simply because she saw Mary eighteen times. What made Bernadette holy was the way she absorbed the Virgin’s message of prayer, humility, and mercy.
As with us, the process was an interplay of God’s grace and human effort. On the one hand, Bernadette worked hard to avoid the fame and fortune that the apparitions might have brought her. She struggled to overcome her “impetuous nature,” quick temper, and sharp tongue. On the other hand, Bernadette’s determination to be the best, most transparent vessel she could be—to decrease so that Jesus might increase—was no do-it-yourself project. It could only have been fueled by the fire of God’s love, set ablaze through her encounters with Mary.
Faithful Messenger. Bernadette did not know the identity of the lady in the grotto for some time. Whenever she saw her, though, Bernadette reacted as if she were on holy ground. She became enraptured—her face changed and beautiful, like a reflection of heaven. And so, sensing that something important hung in the balance, Bernadette was determined to communicate what she saw and heard clearly and precisely, without getting in the way of the message.
Local authorities who grilled Bernadette tried to confuse her with subtlety and trickery, but she answered every question simply and clearly. She refused to embellish the message or to conjecture about the lady’s identity and she became irritated whenever her words were twisted. Always, she deflected attention from herself by staying focused on the simple facts.
On those occasions when the lady gave her a message to deliver, Bernadette took great pains to communicate it exactly. When asked to request a chapel and processions to the grotto, she rushed off with her aunt to tell the parish priest. Reeling from his harsh response, Bernadette’s aunt vowed never to go see him again. But Bernadette cried out, “We must go back! I forgot to tell him about the chapel!” And when the lady finally revealed her name—”I am the Immaculate Conception”—Bernadette had no idea what the words meant. She simply kept repeating them to herself so that she could report them accurately to the priest.
Fleeing the Limelight. Bernadette’s family was abjectly poor. Her father, a miller by trade, had lost his business, and the family was living in a dreary, one-room former jail. As news of the apparitions and miracles spread, Bernadette could have easily used her role to lift her family from poverty. She could have become a spiritual superstar, enjoying the adulation and financial offerings of the faithful. Instead, she was always careful to downplay her celebrity. All she wanted was to be the lady’s messenger.
Bernadette strenuously refused all gifts and money, insisting that her family do the same. She avoided people who begged her to touch their rosaries and rebuked those who sought to sell items related to the apparitions, such as pieces of her clothing. And even though she obediently submitted to being photographed, she refused to pose. When a photographer implored her to assume the enraptured appearance she displayed at the apparitions, she bluntly replied, “How can I do that? The lady is not here!”
The Lourdes apparitions were followed by several years of investigation. Throughout the process, Bernadette gave her testimony to the bishop’s commission calmly and clearly. But when the apparitions were declared authentic in January 1862, Bernadette quickly slipped out of the limelight. Aware that she was no longer essential to the development of the shrine, she pursued her dream of a hidden life, where she could love and serve God quietly and without all the attention.
The Weapon of Humor. In 1866, Bernadette chose to enter the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. On her first day, she was asked to recount her experience of the apparitions to the entire group of sisters. Bernadette was happy to do this, as it had been agreed that the matter would not be discussed any further. But the sisters allowed many exceptions to this rule, and Bernadette was required to meet bishops and other dignitaries on multiple occasions. Then there were the curious ones, people who came to the convent hoping to catch a glimpse of the visionary. At such times, Bernadette said, she felt like a “prize ox” being shown off!
In her quest for a low profile, Bernadette often relied on her wry sense of humor as a weapon. On one occasion, when she was serving as sacristan, some visitors to the convent asked her where Bernadette was going to sit. (Evidently, they didn’t recognize her.) “No luck,” Bernadette replied. “She won’t be in her regular place today.” And with that, she left.
Another time, a visiting bishop dropped his hat specifically so that Bernadette would pick it up—he wanted a second-class relic of the visionary. Seeing through the ruse, Bernadette politely suggested that he pick it up himself! When she was sent on errands that required her to walk past a window so that visitors could see her, Bernadette enjoyed finding alternate routes.
“This Good Master.” It was common practice in nineteenth-century convents for religious superiors to publicly criticize and even insult novices as a way of uprooting any pride and tempering any self-will in the young women. Bernadette was not spared this. In fact, her severe novice mistress seemed to take special pains to single out the celebrated visionary as useless, in order to quash any feelings of superiority she might have had.
This rather demeaning treatment gave Bernadette many opportunities to practice humility and hone her self-control. She accepted them in good spirit, well aware that she could be somewhat touchy and sensitive. (“I have been rightly told that my pride will die fifteen minutes after I do,” she once said.) Using imagery from her childhood, though, she also revealed something of what the discipline cost her: “I have been ground in the mill like a grain of wheat.”
But as Bernadette leaned on the love of God and navigated these challenging waters, she was able to discern a larger plan. After one particularly emotional struggle, she wrote, “It is the love of this good Master who would remove the roots from this tree of pride. The more little I become, the more I grow in the heart of Jesus.”
Like many a saint who had gone before her, Bernadette never spoke much about her inner life. It is hard, then, to know exactly what her spiritual experiences were. But, again like many other saints, telling signs slipped out as she neared death. In the last days of suffering before she succumbed to tuberculosis, on April 16, 1879, she asked that everything around her bed be removed—everything, that is, except for the crucifix. She wanted to fix her eyes only on Jesus; all else was unnecessary. She called her curtained bed the “white chapel,” and in that chapel, she sealed her personal covenant with Jesus and professed her love for him. Her last action was to make the sign of the cross.
On her deathbed, Bernadette told one of the sisters, “The simpler one writes, the better it will be. In trying to dress things up, one only distorts them.” She was speaking of the whole story of Lourdes, but she might well have proposed the same guideline for her own biography. Undoubtedly, she would have “simplified” the story by downplaying her part in the history of Lourdes and the many miraculous healings that take place there year after year!
Let Jesus Shine! As we have seen, Bernadette never pushed herself forward as the visionary of Lourdes. She began the work, then freely allowed it to be taken over by others. When Mary told her to drink from the spring, she dug until she found muddy water. Other people kept digging, in response to the message, and the muddy water became clear. Similarly, once the apparitions had canonical approval, Bernadette stepped back and let others take over. She didn’t want the messenger to be confused with the message. She didn’t want interest in her to cloud people’s understanding of how God wanted to work in their lives.
For me, learning about this aspect of Bernadette—especially the way she lived after the apparitions—made me realize how much I have to learn about deflecting attention from myself and letting Jesus shine through. That’s not a common message in a world that places such a high value on image, notoriety, and public acclaim!
With simplicity and a sense of humor, Bernadette accepted the grace to “decrease” so that she could reflect the message of mercy and love she had received. In our own circumstances, we can do the same. Like Bernadette, we too can point to Jesus and echo Our Lady’s words, “Do whatever he tells you.”
In the end, God raised up Bernadette, who had become a pure vessel of his love. If we let Jesus purify us, he will raise us up as well. Then each of us can be a living message, pointing everyone who sees us to Jesus.
Hallie Riedel is on the editorial staff of The Word Among Us.