Bernadette
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St. Bernadette Soubirous

 

Bernadette Soubirous was a young French girl who lived in the 19th century and began to see visions of a young woman clothed in white who began to talk with her. From February to July of 1858, Bernadette saw this young woman in a small grotto near where she tended sheep with her two sisters. The near-by town and Bernadette’s birthplace was Lourdes. The young woman with whom she was speaking would be known later as Our Lady of Lourdes. In the beginning, the young lady only smiled at Bernadette, but then spoke with her and told her to dig and drink the water and eat the plants where she pointed. Bernadette did so, but all she got was some mud and grass. People thought she was crazy and beat her for her so-called ramblings. There had been no water in this grotto of rocks before this. The next day, however, a clear spring of water was coming from the rock, and this water seemed to have healing powers. There have been 67 confirmed and verified “curings” with this water, and every year nearly five million pilgrims come from many different Christian denominations to visit Lourdes. Bernadette always felt the “curings” came from faith and not from some special waters.

St. Bernadette

 

Bernadette came from a very poor family; her father was a miller, though not always employed, and her mother a laundress. At the time of the apparitions, Bernadette was 14 years old, lived with her parents, worked as a shepherdess and was four out of the nine children to which her mother had given birth. Many had died in infancy. Bernadette, herself, had contracted cholera as a child, and had serious asthma problems most of her life. They all lived in a tiny one-room house near the town dump, measuring 8 X 10 feet, named the “dungeon”. It is into this scenario that Bernadette heard the words of the Blessed Virgin to do penance.   Her faith was unwavering.   Bernadette had little education and didn’t learn to read and write until much later. When the Lady told her to go to the priest and tell him to build a church near the grotto, she simply went. He listened carefully, but then told Bernadette to go back to the lady and ask her her name. The lady told Bernadette to tell the priest, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” a term that meant that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without sin, but also a term to which the pope had just given definition only four years earlier. There was no way Bernadette could have known that name. People began coming to the site in huge numbers to see the girl who spoke to Our Lady, but also to take advantage of the healing waters. After a few years, Bernadette discerned her own vocation and traveled to Nevers, where she joined a religious community, the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity, where she remained until her death at age 35 in 1879. The last four years of her life were filled with pain and suffering. She was beatified in 1927 and canonized on December, 1933. Her body, amazingly, defied corruption for nearly fifty years. There were three exhumations done, the last one in 1925, and only then was her skin beginning to show sign of death. Doctors examined her bones and even her liver in 1925 and it was still seemingly untouched by decomposition.

 

So, why is Bernadette one of the first choices for exploration into our “big brothers and sisters” in the Lord? There have been several apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to people in recent centuries, usually poor people and usually children. The Church does not rush to judgment on any matter, but particularly with apparitions; the Church listens closely to what the visionaries are hearing and seeing. Are thy simple messages of: “Do penance and return to the Gospel?” Or are they some outlandish requests. Rarely will the Church make any judgment before some fifty years have elapsed and then it is usually a simple statement that “this appears to be worthy of consideration for devotion…..never a doctrinal position.

 

our lady of lourdes

 

Bernadette is listed as a saint and mystic, not so much because she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary, but because of her singularity and focus. She was ridiculed, beaten and threatened by many who thought she had lost her mind. When she finally did learn to read and write, she wrote very little, but she never wavered in what she saw or what she heard. She had her eye on the Lord the entire time. Today, she is the patroness of those who are ridiculed for their religion, the patroness of the poor, of shepherds and shepherdesses, and of those with bodily illnesses. Her feast day is April 16th.

 

There are numerous books about the life of Bernadette and films as well. Many people have seen the film “The Song of Bernadette,” with Jennifer Jones starring. A classic biography is by Francis Trochu, published first in France in 1954 and then in London in 1957. Therese Taylor, in a more modern analysis (London and New York: Burns and Oates, 2003) examines not only Bernadette’s life, but the making of a shrine and a bit about the afterlife of a visionary, her time in the convent in Nevers. Bernadette never wanted to be center stage; she wanted only to convey a message and to keep her eyes on the Lord. Whether any of us ever see visions or hear sacred voices, what a wonderful role model: keep your eyes on the Lord!

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Pope Francis

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill