“They think I’m a saint…When I’m dead, they’ll come and touch holy pictures and rosaries to me, and all the while I’ll be getting broiled on a grill in purgatory. At least promise me you’ll pray a lot for the repose of my soul.” -Sister Marie-Bernard
On February 18th in the Traditional Roman Calendar the Feast of the great patriarch of Jerusalem and cousin of our Lord Saint Simeon (+107) is celebrated, but it is also designated the feast of Saint Bernadette “in some places”, and even though her original Universal Feast was established on April 16th this day is rather fitting for her Feast to be celebrated because this is also the octave day of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11th), and it is also her Feast today in the new calendar. Let us then consider the little nun Sister Marie Bernard, who has become famous the world over because of the innumerable miracles wrought at the site of the apparition of our Lady the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception, to her in the little grotto in her home town of Lourdes France.
On January 7th 1844, nearly 29 years to the day before the birth of Saint Therese, Bernarde-Marie Soubirous was born, though at her baptism two days later the Curé insistently referred to her as Marie-Bernarde and she was put down in the baptismal registry under that name. She was named in part after her aunt, but also after the great French Medieval Doctor of the Church: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. So indeed from the first moments of the life she was put under the patronage of Our Lady and this great Benedictine Saint.
Bernadette was a very sickly and small child who still looked to be a teenager when she died at age of 35. Thus she spent a good amount of time with her relatives in the countryside, and not in the miserable slums with her parents who were extremely poor for most of her life with them. As she got older, however, it was a great trial for her to be away from her parents and younger siblings who she loved dearly, and to have to live with her relatives who did not always treat her well.
A marked characteristic of this wonderful little Saint was her incredible purity and simplicity. It is no wonder that our Lady chose this little girl to appear to under her title as the “Immaculate Conception”, which Dogma had just been defined ex cathedra by Blessed Pope Pius IX. In this we begin to see the close connection between Bernadette and her fellow countrywomen to the north Saint Therese.
On Thursday February 11th, 1858, in the last year of the life of Saint John Marie Vianney, in the same year that Saint Damien de Veuster of Molokai would be convinced of his vocation to the religious life by a Mission preached by a Redemptorist Father, in the year that Blessed Pope Pius IX wrote two encyclicals concerning the sacred Priesthood, and in the first year of the great work of Venerable Leon Papin-Dupont the Apostle of the Holy Face the ever Blessed and glorious Virgin Mary Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, came down to earth and appeared to this little shepherdess in the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes France as she and her sister and friend gathered firewood.
There would follow 17 more apparitions of the Immaculate Conception to Bernadette, the final one coming on Friday July 16th 1858 on the Feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel. During the course of the apparitions there would be an incredible up swell of devotion and pilgrimages began being made to the site on a regular basis. The civil authorities did all they could to stop the proceedings but were unable, especially once the Queen of France brought her son the Prince to be healed by the water of the miraculous spring that sprang up where Bernadette dug in the ground and drank the muddy water and ate some of the bitter herbs growing there at the command of our Lady.
The ecclesiastical authorities were very wary at first because there were hundreds of “seers” popping up all over France at this time, and all without fail would be discovered in the end to be of rather demonic origin than heavenly. After due deliberation, however, when it became undeniably clear that Bernadette was indeed receiving visits from the Mother of God the Church was totally with her and supported her. This was especially true of the local Curé, who had been the most strongly opposed to her and would not budge and inch, but when convinced of her sincerity did everything in his power to help and protect his dear spiritual child.
After the upheavals surrounding the apparitions Bernadette discerned that her greatest desire was to retire from the world and become a religious. She desired to be become a Carmelite, but prudently realized that her poor heath would not hold up to the demands of that life, and as she said: “I want to join an order who’s rule I can keep”. Inspired by the holy teaching nuns who she had been schooled by, she decided to join the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity and of Christian Instruction, and entered the Motherhouse at Nevers in central France on July 7th 1866.
Bernadette was then to enter a long period of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering that would last almost uninterrupted until her death in 1879. Upon entering the convent she was made to tell once and to all the sisters the story of our Lady’s Apparitions to her at Lourdes, and then in humility to never speak of it again, which she never did with the exception of the occasional Bishop who would stop in to see her. While most of the superiors cherished this pure and humble saint living in their midst God sent Bernadette a most difficult trial in her novice mistress who did not believe in the apparitions and treated Bernadette with extreme cruelty.
Of course Bernadette suffered all these things with characteristic humility and simplicity, and she grew in holiness. She finally received again the name prophetically given to her at her Baptism when she became Sister Marie-Bernard in religion. It was quickly ascertained by her superiors that, while she was wonderful with the children in the schools run by their Congregation, Sister Marie-Bernard was simply far too sickly to be able to work like the other sisters. It was then decided that she would be permanently assigned to the Motherhouse to work in the Infirmary, and eventually would put in charge of the ward which she herself was often confined to because of her own illness. She was also tasked with the job of being Sister Sacristan, which was most fitting considering her extreme purity. This latter job she continued until she was unable to do the work, because of her illness.
While still a novice Sister Marie-Bernard became so ill that she was at the point of death (in articulo mortis). Now it is the custom in religious congregations that a novice in such a situation would be allowed to make full and final profession so that they could die a member of the community and share in the graces allotted to those who died as such. Thus when the authorities at the chancery were made aware of Sister Marie-Bernard’s condition the Bishop himself rushed to her side. She was so ill she could not even read the statement of profession and so the Bishop had to read it himself and at certain points have her assent to what he had read. This being done he administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and all knelt in prayer awaiting her death.
The next morning, however, found the newly professed religious returned to perfect health by the healing power of the sacrament. Her superiors were so furious with her they were beside themselves alleging that she had “faked it” in order to make her profession. They then returned her to her status as a novice, though she was really and actually a professed member of the Congregation from then on. This coming to the point of death and miraculously recovering after receiving the last sacraments would repeat itself four more times during the following years.
Eventually her trials from her superiors would abate to some degree, but then she entered into a white martyrdom of physical suffering and a spiritual one of complete darkness (what Saint John of the Cross calls: the Dark Night of the Soul). One cannot even begin to describe here with any justice what incredible courage and virtue were displayed by this incredibly holy and pure young woman during these years of her life. It was during this time that the words of our Lady to her at the grotto came fully into focus: “You will not be happy in this life”.
On April 16th, Easter Monday of 1879, the world witnessed the first of two deaths in that century that were so agonizing and holy that the like had not been seen, but a handful of times, since the Crucifixion of our Lord and martyrdoms of his Apostles. At the very last Sister Marie-Bernard was desirous of graces to help her get to heaven. She sought with all her might to obtain as many plenary indulgences as she could. This was in keeping with what she had written in her private notebook some time earlier:
“I will do everything for Heaven…there I shall find my Mother in all the splendour of her glory.”
In her final moments Mother Nathalie came into the infirmary and described her appearance of the Saint that it was as if she was being crucified like our Lord. Sister Marie-Bernard then groaned saying: “My God, my God!”, and a short time later said: “I thirst.” A sister present moistened her lips with a damp cloth. Bending over her Mother Nathalie, remembering a promise our Lady had made to Bernadette, began to pray the Hail Mary. Upon reaching the words: “Holy Mary”, our Saint, to the surprise of Mother Nathalie began to pray the words aloud herself. Her final words were:
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!…Pray for me…poor sinner…poor sinner….”
And she then went to be with our Lord and our Lady.
To this day the body of this great Saint, once ravaged by disease, can still be seen perfectly incorrupt in her tomb.
What followed then was one of the most constant series of miracles from any Saint or Holy site in all of Church History. Not only were, and are, these miracles numerous, but extremely well attested and documented by physicians who are skeptics and most certainly not Catholic.
She was declared Venerable by Pope Saint Pius X in 1913, Beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and on December 8th 1933, the glorious Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the same Holy Father canonized Bernadette a Saint of the Catholic Church:
“To the honour of the most Holy and Undivided Trinity, for the glory of the Catholic Faith, and the increase in the Christian Faith, by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after a lengthy deliberation calling often on divine help, the advice of our brother Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, the Patriarchs, the Archbishops and bishops, we declare and define Saint, the Blessed Marie-Bernard Soubirous, and we inscribe her in the Litany of the Saints, stating that her memory be piously celebrated in the Universal Church on 16th. April each year, the day of her heavenly birth. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Sprit.”
Then was sung the Te Deum, and following was the Solemn Papal Mass. At the conclusion of Holy Mass the Holy Father returned to the Papal throne and spontaneously intoned the “Ave Maria” as it is sung at Lourdes, which was taken up by the entire body present.
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Anyone can see from just the little that has been written here how wonderful this Saint was, and if one cannot it is entirely the authors own fault. If one is interested in really learning about Saint Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes one cannot more highly recommend her Official Biography, written by the wonderful biographer of Saints: the Rev. Abbé François Trochu, he is well known today among English speaking Catholics for his biography of the Curé D’ Ars. His biographies are scrupulously researched using only the most trustworthy and authentic sources and masterfully written. One can really get to know who Saint Bernadette was when reading this book unlike most saints lives which are merely fantastic recitation of miracles and incredible displays of virtue. This biography allows you to really see Bernadette in all her holiness and virtues, but also her faults and humanness. One can really then find a real person we can all imitate, and this is one of the principle reasons for the Church to hold up saints so that we can have role models to follow.
There is also a fantastic two part movie series the covers the life of Bernadette and the apparition at Lourdes made in the late 1980s. The movies are called: Bernadette and The Passion of Bernadette. They are extremely accurate not only in the retelling of historical events, but also in depicting most clearly the demeanor and character of Saint Bernadette as she really was. Many don’t like these movies because of how she was portrayed and preferred other movies about her, but these movies actually show what she was like and nearly every other movie made about her (aka Song of Bernadette) are very inaccurate to both history and really showing who Bernadette was.
One of the most interesting aspects of learning the life of Saint Bernadette is finding just how similar she was in so very many ways to Saint Therese and to Blessed Jacinta Marto of Fatima. In fact all three are very closely connected in many ways. All died within just 41 years of each other, all had special encounters with our Lady, all died relatively young, and the list can go on.
Saint Marie-Bernard Soubirous, ora pro nobis!