Lourdes, an ancient village in the valley of the Pyrenees mountains, is in the extreme southwest of France near the Spanish border. It is the site of the most famous series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and the most visited pilgrimage shrine in Christendom. Credited with exuding a powerful healing energy, it is inundated by those in need of physical and spiritual renewal. Attracting well over 200 million visitors since its discovery, Lourdes is a relatively modern holy site, having only been recognized by the Church as an official pilgrimage place since 1862. It became famous after a poor, illiterate local 14 year old girl, Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near a great rock mound called Massabeille. Despite much ridicule and persecution inflicted on her by the local authorities, Bernadette could not be shaken from her story. While communing with the Virgin, Bernadette uncovered a trickle of muddy water in a place where water had never been. Today, that tiny spring gushes forth with thousands of gallons of water daily. Considered to contain inexplicable healing properties by the devout, many terminally ill people of all faiths flock to Lourdes as a last resort in curing their ailments. Catholics go to spiritually refresh themselves and to honor this visitation by the Mother of God.
Though officially ruled over by France, the villages of the Pyrenees had little to do with their country on any cultural or social level. Most spoke in patois, their own language, never learning French at all. They dressed in their own local costumes, disdained the central government and were known as the ‘Indians’ of France for the exotic way they lived. While the 19th century was celebrated as a great secular age, when France was finally freed of all political domination of the Catholic Church and science and logic replaced faith, the villagers of the Pyrenees defied all official teachings and held on to their religious beliefs. They were hostile to the French government and suspicious of any forms of official beauracracy. Living in a harsh, mountainous landscape, they held much of nature as sacred. They had little faith in modern medicine and combined ancient Celtic beliefs with their Catholic prayers. The love of the Virgin Mary was at the heart of their religious life. Since the 13th century shepherds and shepherdesses had reported direct contact with her, either through visions or the miraculous discovery of statues of her. Shrines to the Madonna were abundant and most towns had a special day of pilgrimage honoring her.
Bernadette Soubirous was a 14 year old girl who’s impoverished family lived in a dank former dungeon. Stricken with asthma, she was considered slow and held back from receiving her First Holy Communion because she had trouble learning her catechism. On February 11, 1858 her mother needed firewood for cooking and could not afford to buy any. She sent Bernadette, her younger sister and a friend out to look for some. So that they would not be accused of stealing, the girls had to go outside of town to public lands. There was an outcropping of rock facing the river with a grotto at its base known as Massabielle. The pigs of Lourdes grazed there and respectable residents did not go to that area because it was considered filthy. According to legend, the Massabeille had been sacred to the pagans in prehistoric times and those passing by it always crossed themselves to ward off the aura of evil that they felt emanated from it. Because of her illness, Bernadette stayed behind while the two younger girls waded across the river to get wood. She decided to join them and began taking off her stockings. It was at this point she heard the sound of a wind and then saw a soft light coming from the niche in the grotto. A beautiful, smiling girl in white seemed to beckon to her. Bernadette was startled and instinctively reached for her rosary. She was unable to pick it up until the young girl produced one herself. They made the sign of the cross together and as Bernadette prayed the rosary, the young girl passed her own beads through her fingers in silent prayer. When Bernadette finished, the young girl smiled and disappeared. Despite her mother’s opposition, Bernadette returned to the site that Sunday after mass. She was joined by a group of friends. The girl in white appeared and Bernadette said, “If you come from God, stay. If you don’t, go away.” She then sprinkled holy water at the girl to make sure she was not from the devil. Bernadette was relieved when the girl laughed and inclined her head to receive more water. Bernadette was the only one who could see or commune with the girl. Her friends were astounded by the physical change in her demeanor. She had fallen into a beautiful rapture and seemed totally relieved of her asthma. One threw a large stone in the direction of the niche and Bernadette did not flinch. Fearing she had had some sort of fit, they ran to get help. The towns residents who came were shocked at the beautiful transformation in Bernadette. Word of her visions started to spread.
Each time she returned to the grotto she was joined by a larger crowd. Many thought the apparition was either the ghost of a devout townswomen who had recently died or a soul who had wandered away from purgatory. Bernadette’s third vision was on the 18th of February and two important townswomen brought along a pen and paper. The girl in white laughed when Bernadette held out the writing instruments and for the first time spoke to her, addressing her with great politeness, “Boulet aoue ra gracia de bie aci penden quinze dias?” she asked in the patois dialect. (“Would you have the grace to come here for fifteen days?”) When Bernadette replied that she would ask her parents’ permission, the girl said, “I do not promise you happiness in this life, but in the next.” During these next two weeks news rapidly spread through Lourdes about the apparitions and the civil authorities felt obliged to take action. Bernadette was taken to the local police station for questioning. The authorities tried to make her admit that it was all a hoax. When she refused, they began to threaten her family. The Church was also skeptical and embarrassed by what they regarded as superstitious worship. The local pastor, Father Peyramale did not want to give the apparitions any credence. Even though the girl in the visions had not named herself, the belief that she might be the Virgin was growing among the townspeople.
For her part, Bernadette did not speculate on the mysterious girl’s identity, always referring to her as ‘Aquero’, the patois word for indescribable being. It was on February 25th, the ninth apparition of the girl that Bernadette was told to go drink at the spring and wash in it. Thinking the girl meant the river, she went towards the Gave. In her words, “…Aquero called me back and pointed to a spot beneath the rock. I found some moisture there but it was mud. Three times I threw it away even though the Lady said to drink it. Then I washed in it only to have my face besmeared with mud. When the Lady left, my Aunt Bernarde slapped my face. ‘Stop your nonsense,’ she said as she sent me home to the jeers of the people…” By the afternoon the muddy area was flowing with pure water and many in the laughing crowd were amazed.because they had never seen a spring there before. In subsequent apparitions the girl asked for penitence and the conversion of sinners. Bernadette said that she was afraid that the people climbing all over the grotto would disturb the rosebush where the girl stood. “I was afraid she might fall, but she kept on smiling at the people. She loved them, and she always seemed sorry to leave them.” At 13th visit Bernadette was told to tell the priests to come to the grotto on procession and to build a chapel. Father Peyramale was enraged and told her that if the girl in white wanted a chapel she should say who she was and she should make the wild rose bush in the niche blossom. It was after this 13th visit that the water in the spring was first accredited with healing properties. A pregnant woman with a paralyzed hand became totally cured and a stonecutter had his sight restored after he bathed his eyes in the water. Before this, there had been no physical proof of Bernadette’s visits.
The vast crowds that had started to accompany her did not see or hear the girl in white. They only believed in these visions because of Bernadette’s great physical transformation. Thursday, March 4th was the last of the 15 days. Over 8,000 people went to the grotto expecting to see something miraculous. At the end of her vision, 45 minutes, Bernadette put out her candle and went home. The rosebush did not bloom, the girl in white did not declare any message. Bernadette, unconcerned about the wild emotions she had aroused, went home content. For the next three weeks, Bernadette later wrote, “The people pestered me, the police watched me, and the public prosecutor almost crushed me…” Then, on the night of March 24th she awoke with the familiar urge to return. On March 25th,the day of the Annunciation, she returned to the grotto at 5AM. The girl in white appeared and Bernadette asked her four times to say who she was. “Aquero extended her hands towards the ground, swept them upwards to join them on her heart, raised her eyes, but not her head to Heaven, leaned tenderly towards me and said, ‘Que soy era Immaculada Concptiou.’ (‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’) She smiled at me. She disappeared. I was alone.” Father Peyramale was astounded at this announcement. This expression meant nothing to a simple peasant girl like Bernadette. The Catholic tradition that Mary had been conceived without original sin so that she might be worthy to be the Mother of God had only been formally defined as Church doctrine in 1854. Eventually, the parish priest would be Bernadette’s greatest defender as she was harassed and examined by government officials, psychologists and church hierarchy.
She never altered the account of her story to any of them, “I do not ask you to believe; I only told you what I had seen.” Three eminent Parisian doctors declared that she was mentally and emotionally sound but that she suffered from asthma. (“My mother could have told them that and saved them the trouble.”) Under increased pressure from the authorities, the grotto was closed off and anyone visiting it threatened with arrest. On the 16th of July, Bernadette saw the girl in white for the last time. She knelt in the meadow on the far side of the river. “…I began my rosary and my Lady stood in the Grotto smiling at me. It was the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. This would be the last time I would see her on this earth….She left heaven in my heart and it has been there ever since.” While Lourdes developed into a world famous place of pilgrimage, Bernadette, disliking the attention her presence created, joined the Sisters of Nevers in 1866. Her novitiate was difficult and her health deteriorating. She never showed any interest in the miraculous healings promised by the water in the spring. Her insistence that the girl in white was no older than 12 was ignored and priestly experts stated that since Mary had to be between the age of 15 and 17 at the time of the Annunciation, the official image of the apparition should depict her at that age. Bernadette never liked the statue that was erected in the Grotto in 1864, declaring it “too big and too old”. She died of tuberculosis in 1879. When her body was exhumed in 1908, it was found to be uncorrupted. She was recognized as a Saint by the Catholic church in 1933. Gradually, the local officials had to relent and re-open the grotto to the public. The Bishop accepted the apparitions and approved the shrine in 1862. After the railroad line was finished in 1866, pilgrims began arriving in the tens of thousands. After 1873, when incidents of healing at the spring began to be reported, the shrine rapidly developed an international reputation for having healing powers. Bathing pools filled with cold water piped from Bernadette’s spring were created for visiting pilgrims. Much effort was put on the scientific community to repudiate the healings at Lourdes.
Many illnesses were declared to be hysterical in nature and therefore cured by the powers of suggestion. Studies of the water from the spring showed it had no special chemical properties In 1882 a medical bureau was established to test the validity of the cures. Before a cure can be officially considered, a patient’s medical records are studied by a commission of doctors and independent medical professionals. The alleged cure must be immediate and permanent to be regarded as a miracle. When an investigation does occur, the conclusion is placed in one of four possible categories: (1)There has been no cure. (2)A partial cure has taken place. (3)There has been a cure, but there are medical or psychological reasons for it. (4) There has been a cure for which there is not natural or scientific explanation. The pilgrim must then return after a year for further examination. Since March 1, 1858, the Church has recognized 65 miracles at Lourdes. There are countless undocumented healings and over 5,000 documented “inexplicable healings”. Father Peyramale completed the first basilica upon the rock of Massabielle in 1873. After the great “national” French pilgrimages were initiated where Catholics of all classes came to bathe the sick at Lourdes, a larger church had to be built. The Church of the Holy Rosary was consecrated in 1901.
Today, the Basilica rises in 3 tiers over the grotto. Across the stream is a cavernous underground church which seats 20,000. In the grotto the miraculous spring has been channeled into a long row of spigots where visitors may collect the “Lordais water” and take it home. A small hospital and a number of hostels serve the needs of the seriously ill There is a Rosary procession held by torchlight each evening and the entire shrine is active throughout the day and evening with various services, processions and blessings of the sick. At the heart of the Lourdes pilgrimage is service to the sick and the infirm. Many devotees do not go for themselves but to aid others and to commune with God in a holy atmosphere.
There are four traditional gifts imparted by Lourdes: 1) The gift of miraculous water 2) The gift of healing 3) The gift of reconciliation 4) The gift of strength and friendship.