Sunday, February 10, 2008

Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

The saint of Lourdes ... the saint of penance ... the saint of poverty ... Our Lady's child visionary is also to many the saint of family. Born January 7, 1844 at a time of prosperity for her family, her parents and younger siblings lived in an environment of deep love and devotion for each other. However, hard times soon fell on agricultural France, and worse yet, a string of seemingly endless bad luck fell on the Soubirous family. Put to the test time and again, Bernadette and her family discovered the meaning of unconditional commitment. In desperation, illness, and poverty, the oldest of the Soubirous children began having mysterious visions at the age of fourteen. The combination of sophisticated revelations and Bernadette's simplicity were a certain confirmation of these apparitions. The entire region was soon in an uproar over the events. The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary spanned only six months, but no relief came to the Soubirous family. They came even closer together as they were plagued with continued misfortune through the time of the apparitions and beyond. The events at Lourdes only magnified the trials of Bernadette and her family, leading to persecution by many non–believers and authorities alike. Within their home the Soubirous did find peace, however. Their commitment to each other and their faith held them together despite the unnerving events and their dire living conditions. Consolation also came as the Catholic Church confirmed the apparitions within only a few years, and construction began on the sanctuary at the Grotto of Massabielle before Bernadette even left for Nevers. As for Bernadette, she individually experienced destitution and divine light simultaneously. We might find it difficult to resolve these two states in the same life circumstance under any conditions. By faith and grace, she was able to live with them together. Less than a year after Bernadette was born (November 1844), her mother Louise suffered a burn injury while pregnant with her second child. Bernadette was sent to a nurse at Bartrès, and returned eleven months later after the younger child died. There were eventually to be nine children born to Louise and François Soubirous, of which only four survived childhood. Three years later, François was blinded in the left eye in a milling accident at the Boly Mill, which was also the family's home. Crops were poor and famine struck France. In 1854, with work sparse, the Soubirous were turned out from the Boly Mill. They wandered from one boarding house to another, turned out each time for failing to meet their bills. Bernadette was 11 years old and watching after the three younger children as her parents went out to find work each day. François was forced to become a day laborer earning less than the cost of hiring a horse. When a cholera epidemic swept through town, Bernadette was stricken. Almost to the point of death, she was to suffer with severe asthma for the rest of her life. To help her family survive, she worked for a time as a waitress in her aunt's inn. Failing again to meet their meager rent in May 1856, the family was this time left homeless. A cousin had pity and allowed them to stay in an abandoned prison cell that was in a building he owned. "Le Cachot" (the lock–up) was little more than 12 feet square. At this point the family was in utter poverty. With no food to eat, François was suspected of stealing two sacks of flour. Imprisoned for eight days, the charges were shortly dismissed, but he was left with a reputation as a thief. "The room was dark ... In the backyard was the privy which overflowed and made the place stink. We kept the dung–heap there ... The Soubirous were destitute: two poor beds, one on the right as you entered, and the other on the same side nearer to the fireplace ... They had only a little trunk to put all their linen in ... My wife lent them some chemises: they were full of vermin ... She often gave them a bit of bread made of millet. Yet the little ones never asked for anything. They would rather have starved." André Sajous, owner of Cachot, 1875. In the darkness of this destitution the Soubirous maintained the light of their faith. Evenings in the Cachot were spent in common prayer. They attended mass frequently, and on Sundays assisted services in the parish. Louise and François recited the rosary and taught the children to do the same. Bernadette owned rosary beads and carried them with her. Towards the end of 1857, she was again sent to her nurse in Bartrès to work as a farmhand. There would be food there and one less mouth to feed at the Cachot. However, there was no school or catechism to prepare for her first Communion. Persistent and decisive, Bernadette persuaded her mistress and family to allow her to return to Lourdes. She could not remain away from the reading lessons which would earn her the ability to complete her catechism and finally receive her first Communion. In January, 1858, at almost 14 years of age, she returned to the misery of the Cachot and entered a pauper's school where she learned in the company of 7– year–olds. Only three weeks were to pass before a desperate search for firewood led Bernadette to her first encounter with "the Lady" ... The mountain air was cold and wet. Still two months of winter lay ahead. Food was scarce, and firewood all gone for this young family. Survival of the family was the first concern. Remaining together in their love the second. Each member, young and old, had their part to play in this survival game. Illness plagued the firstborn, who in body was so weak, and yet in mind so strong. Their village with a thousand–year history was one of the larger towns at the foot of the Pyrenees. But, the time had come to really place Lourdes on the map. Not just for Lourdes' 4,000 inhabitants, nor France, but for the entire world. No particular feature or product of this pocket of Bigorre was worthy of great prominence. It was merely a stopping point for mountaineers or travellers in search of the waters of places like Barèges, Cauterets, or Bagnères–de–Bigorre. In fact the culture of the region was so separated from surrounding areas geographically and historically that they even spoke their own language. Lourdes had seen its share of hardship in recent years. Droughts had killed the wheat harvest, and the industrial revolution threatened the mills. A cholera epidemic swept through the area, killing many and almost claiming the life of Bernadette. Lourdes' past glories could be traced in history to 778, when Charlemagne lay siege on the Moorish castle. Legend held that the Moor leader converted at the feet of the Black Virgin of Puy, and was baptized with the name Lorus, from which the town received its name. But by the nineteenth century, it had only dreams of past glories. Photography had been invented in France less than 15 years earlier, and it is almost certain that none of the photographs you see of young Bernadette Soubirous on these pages would never have been taken ... that is unless the "Lady" came for a visit!

January 20th, 1858

Bernadette returned to live in the misery and squalor of the Cachot, and attended a convent–run school where she was put in a "pauper's class" with no fees to pay, in the company of 7– year–olds. How courageous was Bernadette! Three weeks later, a dark and somber sky hung over the icy dawn of Thursday February 11th. Outside the Cachot there was mist and drizzling rain. Inside, the Soubirous family shivered from the cold and dampness. The last of the firewood had gone, the last bundle having been sold the night before to buy food. Bernadette pleaded with her mother to allow her to go and fetch some. Afraid that Bernadette might suffer an asthma attack from the bad weather, her mother was reluctant. Finally, she gave in to her daughter's constant pleading. And so it was that Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend Jeanne Abadie, nick–named Balourn, made their way to the river Gave. They crossed the meadow of the Savy mill (the present day Rosary Square). "We are not thieves," said Bernadette as they crossed this private property and left untouched the many fallen branches that lay strewn there. Further on they came to the "pig–sty", a rocky recess where the river currents washed up driftwood and all sorts of rubbish. This place had often been a treasure trove for these poor children who sold what they found to the local rag market in Lourdes. Even that very day they were to find and to sell enough to buy 20 sous worth of bread, and this in a place used by Samson, the local swineherd, as a watering hole for pigs. Heaven has a wondrous way of working its miracles. What symbolism exists in the circumstances surrounding the Lourdes apparitions. For many, it took great faith to look beyond simple appearances to realize the rich imagery and message behind the events that were soon to occur. Here now is how Bernadette herself described the events which left such an indelible impression on her heart. She wrote of the events several times in almost identical terms. This first account, written on May 28th, 1861, was at the time when Bernadette was just learning to write. "The first time I went to the Grotto, was Thursday, 11th February, 1858. I went to gather firewood with two other little girls (Toinette, her sister, and Jeanne Abadie, nicknamed Balourn). When we got to the mill (of Savy), I asked the other two if they would like to see where the water of the mill joins the Gave. They said 'Yes.' From there we followed the canal. When we arrived there (at the foot of the rock of Massabielle) we found ourselves before a grotto. As they could go no further, my two companions prepared to cross the water lying before their path; so I found myself alone on the other side. They crossed the water; they started to cry. I asked them why and they told me that the water was cold. I begged them to help me throw a few rocks into the water so that I could cross without taking my stockings off. They replied that I could do as they had done. Then I went a bit further to see if I could cross without taking my stockings off, but without success." "I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind.Portrait of Bernadette in 1858 Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white." "The Lady made a sign for me to approach; but I was seized with fear, and I did not dare, thinking that I was faced with an illusion. I rubbed my eyes, but in vain. I looked again, and I could still see the same Lady. Then I put my hand into my pocket, and took my rosary. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but in vain; I could not raise my hand to my forehead, it kept on dropping. Then a violent impression took hold of me more strongly, but I did not go." "The Lady took the rosary that she held in her hands and she made the sign of the cross. Then I commenced not to be afraid. I took my rosary again; I was able to make the sign of the cross; from that moment I felt perfectly undisturbed in mind. I knelt down and said my rosary, seeing this Lady always before my eyes. The Vision slipped the beads of her rosary between her fingers, but she did not move her lips. When I had said my rosary the Lady made a sign for me to approach, but I did not dare. I stayed in the same place. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared. I started to remove the other stocking to cross the shallow water near the grotto so as to join my companions. And we went away. As we returned, I asked my companions if they had seen anything. 'No,'; they replied. 'And what about you? Did you see anything?' 'Oh, no, if you have seen nothing, neither have I.' "I thought I had been mistaken. But as we went, all the way, they kept asking me what I had seen. I did not want to tell them. Seeing that they kept on asking I decided to tell them, on condition that they would tell nobody. They promised not to tell. They said that I must never go there again, nor would they, thinking that it was someone who would harm us. I said no. As soon as they arrived home they hastened to say that I had seen a Lady dressed in white. That was the first time." Bernadette's relationship with the Lady begins on a gesture of poverty. As Jesus came to the world in a humble manger, so did Mary come to Massabielle, a muddy cavelike formation filled with trash that washed up from the river, dressed in pure white! Bernadette was soon to discover in one of the purest dialogues ever exchanged between a human being and the Mother of God, that there is a poverty worse than destitution, hunger, cold, ignorance, social degradation, illness, death, and so on. This poverty is that of human sin. In her own physical poverty, she is enriched with this knowledge and grace. She discovers that true riches consist in the mercy of God, who offers Himself to sinners and transforms them ... if they consent, to His will. Bernadette soon consents, at first to a simple request ... to meet the lady again for fifteen days ... and begins her lifelong mission. "The second time was the following Sunday. I went backBernadette at the grotto, 1862 because I felt myself interiorly impelled. My mother had forbidden me to go. After High Mass, the two other girls and myself went to ask my mother again. She did not want to let us go, she said that she was afraid that I should fall in the water; she was afraid that I would not be back for Vespers. I promised that I would. Then she gave me permission to go." "I went to the Parish Church to get a little bottle of holy water, to throw over the Vision, if I were to see her at the grotto. When we arrived, we all took our rosaries and we knelt down to say them. I had hardly finished the first decade when I saw the same Lady. Then I started to throw holy water in her direction, and at the same time I said that if she came from God she was to stay, but if not, she must go. She started to smile, and bowed; and the more I sprinkled her with holy water, the more she smiled and bowed her head and the more I saw her make signs. Then I was seized with fright and I hurried to sprinkle her with holy water until the bottle was empty. Then I went on saying my rosary. When I had finished it she disappeared and we came back to Vespers. This was the second time." "The third time was the following Thursday. The Lady only spoke to me the third time. I went to the grotto with a few grown–ups, who advised me to take paper and ink, and to ask her, if she had anything to say to me, to have the goodness to put it on paper. I said these words to the Lady. She smiled and said that it was not necessary for her to write what she had to say to me, but asked if I would do her the favour of coming for a fortnight. I told her that I would. She told me also that she did not promise to make me happy in this world, but in the next." "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next" ... These words spoken by Mary to Bernadette at the third apparition on February 18, 1858 were a prophesy of Bernadette's life. This was the promise in return for Bernadette's total compliance with the will of the heavenly Mother. The happiness promised to Bernadette was not only intended for life after death. It is a happiness experienced by all those who progress in the way of prayer; who go beyond prayerful words to the discovery of true Prayer. It was this experience that Bernadette came to discover as she knelt before Our Lady. She went beyond the mere recitation of the rosary to savor the deeper experience of a loving communion, "of a friend speaking to a friend." There at the Grotto, Bernadette's deeply prayerful experience silently touched the hearts of all who watched, and crowds began to form in ever greater numbers as the famous Fortnight of Apparitions progressed.

Eight people were present, including Bernadette's mother and her aunt Bernarde, who was her godmother. In spite of their natural fear, they found comfort in the calm happiness displayed by Bernadette throughout this fourth Apparition. Bernadette was armed with a candle for protection.
"I came back for a fortnight. The vision appeared every day, except one Monday and one Friday. She repeated to me several times that I was to tell the priests they were to build a Chapel there, and I was to go to the fountain to wash, and that I was to pray for sinners. During this fortnight, she told me three secrets which she forbade me to tell anyone. I have been faithful until now."
Bernadette's writing of The Fortnight focuses on the time when the Lady confided to her messages and secrets. Calendars matter little to her, except concerning the two occasions on which the Vision did not appear.

Saturday, February 20, 1858
Thirty people were in attendance and returned to the village deeply moved and astonished at the extraordinary atmosphere of peace and joy that emanated from the poor little Grotto. Father Pene, the local parish curate, questioned Bernadette about the happiness she found at the Grotto. She answered "When I see her I feel as if I'm no longer of this world. And when the vision disappears I'm amazed to find myself still here."
Sunday, February 21, 1858
Over one hundred people had gathered. The police began to keep an eye on the place. They counted the crowd and were truly alarmed by the events. Jacomet, the Police Commissioner, sent for Bernadette, questioned her, threatened her, and finally obtained from François Soubirous, who had no desire to return to prison, the assurance that the whole business would cease. Bernadette's sadness upset her family ..."she is no liar", said her mother.

The 1st Interrogation
Monday, February 22, 1858
In obedience to her father, Bernadette painfully went off to school. But, in the afternoon of that same day an irresistible force drew her back to Massabielle. There was however no Apparition.

Tuesday, February 23, 1858
In spite of the Police Commissioner, Bernadette was back again at the Grotto for the seventh Apparition. There was but a small gathering of people that included some of the leading villagers who had come out of curiosity and the desire to mock the gullibility of the "lower classes." A certain Jean-Baptiste Estrade, a tax inspector with a rather aloof personality, was also present. He was sent by the parish priest Father Peyramale to find out what was going on. He and Duffo, the court official, with officers from the garrison and other eminent citizens, had come to witness this "Mardi Gras carnival" on the advice of the parish priest. But, instead of being shocked or scandalized, they were astonished and moved by the whole experience. The vision of Bernadette in prayer turned them into "believers and witnesses". Something was definitely happening at Massabielle. There was no stopping it now. The "pig–sty" was about to become the "Blessed Grotto," a place destined to make Lourdes the capital of prayer in which the "Message of Prayer" would take root and flourish.

Wednesday, February 24, 1858
250 people clustered around Bernadette taking up all the space between the River Gave and the rock of Massabielle. Sadness and tears stained the transfigured face of the visionary. The message given today was repeated at the Grotto and in the town: "PENANCE!" "PRAY FOR THE CONVERSION OF SINNERS." And pray they did at Massabielle. People arrived earlier than ever. In the cold of winter, they were satisfied to be there, by the banks of the River Gave, to watch and pray.

Discovery of the Spring

Thursday, February 25, 1858
The police recorded a crowd of more than 350. Hoping to witness something of her ecstasy, the crowd waited with eagerness for Bernadette's arrival. Unlike the fine weather of previous days, this was a cold, miserable rainy day. It was out of the cold misty dawn that Bernadette finally appeared. She was seen to remove her hood, put her candle aside, walk towards the Gave, then turn, go down on her knees and finally crawl on all fours to the back of the Grotto, towards the left of the rock. (The Lady) told me that I should go and drink at the fountain and wash myself. Seeing no fountain I went to drink at the Gave. She said it was not there; she pointed with her finger that I was to go in under the rock. I went, and I found a puddle of water which was more like mud, and the quantity was so small that I could hardly gather a little in the hollow of my hand. Nevertheless I obeyed, and started scratching the ground; after doing that I was able to take some. The water was so dirty that three times I threw it away. The fourth time I was able to drink it. She made me eat grass growing in the same place where I had drunk; once only; I do not know why. Then the Vision disappeared and I went home."

The Ninth Apparition is a culminating point of the Lourdes message. The water bubbling up and mixing with the mud from the inner recesses of the Grotto was to take on an unimaginably deep meaning. Much more than a mere purifying water which may sometimes produce miraculous cures, this water is the mystical sign of the water that flowed with the Blood from Christ's side, pierced by the soldier's spear. An enlightening coincidence, since it was at that time that an account of the Passion was being read in the Catholic liturgy. Without knowing, Bernadette had mimed the Passion "for sinners." But, as Bernadette was discovering the meaning of the Lady's message, only a few scarce people, such as Marie Pailhes, grasped the full gravity of the situation. Moved by the sadness upon Bernadette's face, "She seemed to carry all the sorrow of the world," wrote Pailhes. But as for the majority, they had callously behaved like the many who, on Good Friday, had abandoned Jesus, whom only a few days before they had so admired and loved. As Bernadette scratched the muddy ground and chewed the bitter grass, her friends and supporters one by one began to abandon their belief in the claimed visions. This was just like Jesus' friends failed to understand that "ours were the sufferings He carried, and ours the sorrows He bore." Yet they had lived with Him and He had tried to teach them this. On the evening before Christ's passion, He had taken a loaf of bread and said, "this is my body given up for sinners." He had taken a cup of wine and said, "this is my blood poured out for all people." Jesus had tried to avoid this, asking three times of the Father to "let this cup pass from me." But He surrendered himself to the Father: "May your will be done." Jesus had a great love and compassion for sinners, and it led Him to severe suffering. He was the innocent lamb, sacrificed for the salvation of the world, taking on Himself all the sins of the world. For those who cared to watch and listen, true meaning was discovered in Bernadette's crawling in the mud, and the grass that she found "difficult and bitter" to eat. At the ninth apparition, a passion play of sorts was performed by Bernadette. She observed the sadness of Mary, was called to offer sacrifices and penance for sinners, and surrendered herself in a symbolic gesture representing the poverty of sinners. During the course of her life, Bernadette meditated and deepened her understanding of this mystery. Her compassion and prayer for "poor sinners" was to grow ever more profound.

February 25, 1858
Bernadette rose from crawling in the mud at the Grotto. The crowd was surprised and shocked when she turned towards them. Her face was unrecognizable, smeared with mud, and chewing a tuft of grass pulled up from the ground. The surprise of the onlookers soon turned to resentment, sarcasm and anger. Some were horrified. Headlines in the next day's newspapers angrily proclaimed that "the gullible have been well and truly had ... Bernadette's real place should be in the asylum." On the day of the apparition, Bernadette's Aunt Bernarde intervened, slapping Bernadette's face and sending her off towards the Cachot. The standersby jeered as she passed. "An unforgettably gloomy day" wrote Estrade, the tax inspector. He now had to suffer the taunts of his colleagues at the Café Français. Furious at having let themselves be dragged into this misadventure, they discovered that Bernadette was a "filthy little upstart." The term was used throughout the town to conjure up the image of Bernadette covered with the mud of the pig–sty. The local authorities sensed the changed mood in the village and acted quickly. That same evening, Bernadette was summoned to appear before Dutour, the Imperial Public Prosecutor. He was the same man responsible for landing Bernadette's father in prison. For two long hours, Bernadette stood on her feet with her mother standing beside her. The fourteen–year–old girl endured a grilling interrogation. She was questioned, accused, and threatened with all kinds of insinuations. Finally, her mother, weakened with fear, fainted. The inspector persisted, but gave them chairs to sit down.

The 2nd Interrogation
It has been taught by the Church and the great mystics themselves that those favored with supernatural experiences should exercise discernment concerning what happens to them, and even resist it. Without the benefit of this advice, Bernadette follows these practices naturally. From the first apparition she rubs her eyes and grasps her rosary for protection. She doubts the visions since her friends see nothing. At the second apparition, she throws holy water at the apparition. During the course of eight interrogations, she takes great care that her statements never exceed precisely what she has seen. On the day following the discovery of the spring (February 26th), Bernadette returned to the grotto. She was disheartened from the events and persecutions of the prior day, fearing that all was coming to an end. But, everything was just beginning. Water began flowing strongly from the spring, and a few spectacular miracles quickly renewed the expectations of the followers. The next two days (Saturday February 27th and Sunday 28th) brought the crowds back. About 1,150 were present on Sunday, about one–third of Lourdes' population. Of course by now, people were arriving from afar to witness the miracles. Judge Ribes brought Bernadette in again for questioning, hoping to discourage her from going to the grotto. But she had made a promise to go there for fifteen days.

Monday, March 1, 1858
Almost fifteen hundred people gathered. An astounding number of conversions were taking place, and the town parish was not certain what to make of it all. On this day, the first recognized miracle occurred. Catherine Latapie, nine months pregnant, walked 9 kilometers from her home in the neighboring village of Loubajac to bathe here paralyzed arm in the "healing" spring. Healed on the site, she returned home to immediately give birth to a son. Recognized in 1862 as the first approved miracle of Lourdes, her healing testified of the truth of the apparitions. A visiting priest, Fr. Desirat, was standing next to Bernadette on this day: "What struck me was the joy, the sadness reflected in Bernadette's face ... Respect, silence, recollection reigned everywhere. Oh it was good to be there It was like being at the gates of paradise." The Soubirous family is still destitute. They are still lodged in the Cachot. François has no stable job. Food is hard to come by. And, Bernadette fiercely refuses gifts and money. Events have become more stressful. Jacomet and his policemen hover around the family, and interrogations and prison are a constant threat. Above all their troubles, the light from Massabielle shines on the poor household and the family within. Aquero (the Lady) has revealed to Bernadette a destitution worse than poverty and sickness. The Lady has asked her to pray for sinners and do penance for them. After all, sin is the great destitution, sinners are the poorest of the poor. Finally, not only a message was given, but a command. The fortnight had ended without Aquero yet revealing her true name. But, her request was a formidable one.

Tuesday, March 2, 1858

"Go and tell the priest to build a chapel here and to have people come in procession." At the end of her ecstasy on this fifteenth apparition, Bernadette heard these words. The task would be a daunting one. Monsieur le Curé (Fr. Peyramale) was not an easy–going personality. He was also quite impatient with the grotto story. Bernadette was determined to convey the message, and accompanied by her two aunts for support, she found herself on the front steps of the presbytery. Turned away at first and called a liar by the furious priest, she and her aunts left quickly, but not before the priest forbade her from returning to the cave. With bravery, Bernadette resolved to try again. Before the night was over, she was accompanied by a friend of the priest to deliver her message. Bernadette was questioned thoroughly in front of the entire parish clergy. Her task was accomplished. Fr Peyramale was left confused after Bernadette's visit. The parish priests no longer could agree. Fr. PeyramaleBernadette's confessor, the prudent Fr. Pomian, was content to wait for further developments. Peyramale felt it was time to act. He went to Tarbes to pay a visit to the bishop, Msgr. Laurence. The bishop concluded that Peyramale should remain safely away from the grotto, although Peyramale had grown eager to inspect the location firsthand. Bernadette was to return to Fr. Peyramale on three consecutive days to deliver her message. On March 3rd he gave her a cool reception. Thousands of people had flooded into Lourdes, several times the population, eagerly awaiting the last day of the fortnight (March 4th). Expectations of a spectacular sign had spread through the town. With the priest's approval, a guard was posted at the grotto through the night. He responded to Bernadette, "If the lady wants her chapel, let her tell you her name, and ask her to make the rosebush at the grotto flower"

Thursday, March 4, 1858

Bernadette set out on what may have been her last meeting with the lady, the last day of the fortnight. She serenely made her way through a crowd of 10,000, and went into a rapture that lasted for well over an hour in an atmosphere of peace and fervour. The crowd was quiet. Afterwards, many who had came expecting to see wonders were disappointed. Bernadette returned deep in thought to Le Cachot. The crowd pressed against her, wanting to see and touch her. She repelled the crowd and refused money that people tried to slip into her hands. Her one desire was to see the priest once more. "The third time I went to see M. le Curé, to tell him that a Lady had ordered me to go and say to the priests that they were to have a chapel built there, he looked at me for a moment, and then he said to me in a rather gruff tone, 'Who is this lady?' I answered that I did not know. Then he commissioned me to ask her name and to come and tell him. The next day when I arrived at the grotto I recited my rosary and then asked her, from M. le Curé what her name was, but all she did was to smile. When I got back I went to M. le Curé to tell him that I discharged his commission, and her only response was her smile; then he said she was laughing at me and that I would do well not to go to her again. But, I could not help going." Life rapidly returned to normal after the fortnight ended. Crowds continued to gather at the grotto, but Bernadette returned to school and was preparing for her first Communion. The priest, however, remained troubled. On March 18th, Bernadette was again subjected to a formal interrogation. Questioned by the authorities about the so–called miracles and her intentions, she claimed that she did not believe she had cured anyone. She was also submitted to repeated medical examinations to prove her sanity. The fortnight of apparitions had concluded. "Aquero" had not yet revealed her name. And yet she had already asked much of Bernadette–crawling in the mud, eating bitter grass, humiliation by the fickle crowds, the chapel. The small town was also put under strain. Swelling to several times its population, tensions increased as expectations on one fourteen–year–old girl carried the residents and visitors on an emotional roller coaster. Aquero had also given much in return. The message of penance and prayer for sinners taught those who were willing to open their hearts that there was a poverty worse than physical destitution. Bernadette herself was among the poorest of any child in town. The healing waters were a lasting sign that brought miracles. Many were converted. What was next? After three weeks, life had regained some normalcy. The faithful still gathered at the grotto, but Bernadette was not to be seen. She was busy studying her catechism and preparing for her first Holy Communion. In the early morning hours on March 25th, Bernadette awoke with the familiar inner call to return to the grotto. This was a call that she could not resist. The day was an important one in the church–the feast of the Annunciation, a day when young Mary of Nazareth also received a call in her own poor dwelling. An angel visited to announce that she would become the mother of the Saviour.

Thursday, March 25, 1858

Bernadette joyfully rejoined the lady in the grotto. It had been 3 weeks since she saw Aquero and had not known whether she would ever appear again. This time she was determined to obtain the lady's name, so that she could finally tell the priest. Bernadette was characteristically stubborn, and she repeated four times the question she had practiced so often, "Would you be so kind as to tell me who you are?" The answer finally came: "I am the Immaculate Conception." "I went every day for a fortnight, and each day I asked her who she was–and this petition always made her smile. After the fortnight I asked her three times consecutively. She always smiled. At last I tried for the fourth time. She stopped smiling. With her arms down, she raised her eyes to heaven and then, folding her hands over her breast she said, 'I am the Immaculate Conception.' Then I went back to M. le Curé to tell him that she had said she was the Immaculate Conception, and he asked was I absolutely certain. I said yes, and so as not to forget the words, I had repeated them all the way home." Bernadette planted a candle between two rocks as a gift, a sign of her prayer and the revelation, and then ran home. Running all the way, she repeated these strange words over and over so that she would not forget them. Saint Bernadette at 19 yearsOf course the words were spoken in her native Bigourdan dialect and were completely unfamiliar, "que soy era Immaculada Councepciou." Fr. Peyramale said that a woman cannot have a name like that. "You are mistaken. Do you know what that means?" The priest was shaken, and unable to talk to Bernadette. He quickly sent her away, and she left without the privilege of understanding the meaning of the title. She was only told later that afternoon that the Blessed Mother carried that title. "She could never have invented this ... " wrote Fr. Peyramale to the bishop that evening. The Church declared that Mary was the "Immaculate Conception" only four years earlier in 1854. The title would certainly have been unknown to Bernadette since it was not broadly discussed in the liturgy, and Bernadette still could not read or write. She was only then learning her catechism to prepare for first Holy Communion, a task undertaken typically by children six or seven years her junior. It was her poor health and her family's poverty that had hindered her education. Two more apparitions were to occur following Our Lady's announcement that she was in fact the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of God. Lourdes was in a state of unrest. False visionaries and other troublemakers created a frenzy in the town. The Bishop finally intervened, denouncing such abuses. Civil authorities barricaded the grotto and prevented access. The barricades were repeatedly destroyed and re–erected. Meanwhile, Bernadette returned to a quieter life. After the seventeenth apparition, the Soubirous finally left the Cachot. With no knowledge that she would ever see the Virgin Mary again, Bernadette went on to receive her first Holy Communion on June 3rd. She was indeed the first to live the message of penance, receiving visitors tirelessly and repeating the events over and over. This wore greatly on her health and hindered her education.

Wednesday, April 7, 1858
Three days after Easter, Bernadette again felt the inner call to the grotto. She arrived with a candle in hand. Already gathered, the regular daily crowd fell silent as Bernadette immediately went into a rapture. All was quiet until Dr. Dozous pushed noisily through the crowd to be at the visionary's side. He had always been a skeptic, and now arrived "in the name of science." The large candle that Bernadette was holding burned down until she was barely holding a wick. Dr. Dozous observed the flames licking at Bernadette's fingers for a full ten minutes. When the ecstasy was over, he examined her fingers, which had not been harmed or affected in any way. Bernadette had not felt the flames at all. From that moment, Dr. Dozous became an ardent supporter of the apparitions and an important witness. He returned immediately to Commissioner Jacomet's office to have the account recorded in writing. "Bernadette seemed to be even more absorbed than usual in the Appearance upon which her gaze was riveted. I witnessed, as did also every one else there present, the fact which I am about to narrate. She was on her knees saying with fervent devotion the prayers of her Rosary which she held in her left hand while in her right was a large blessed candle, alight. The child was just beginning to make the usual ascent on her knees when suddenly she stopped and, her right hand joining her left, the flame of the big candle passed between the fingers of the latter. Though fanned by a fairly strong breeze, the flame produced no effect upon the skin which it was touching. Astonished at this strange fact, I forbade anyone there to interfere, and taking my watch in my hand, I studied the phenomenon attentively for a quarter of an hour. At the end of this time Bernadette, still in her ecstasy, advanced to the upper part of the Grotto, separating her hands. The flame thus ceased to touch her left hand. Bernadette finished her prayer and the splendour of the transfiguration left her face. She rose and was about to quit the Grotto when I asked her to show me her left hand. I examined it most carefully, but could not find the least trace of burning anywhere upon it. I then asked the person who was holding the candle to light it again and give it to me. I put it several times in succession under Bernadette's left hand but she drew it away quickly, saying 'You are burning me!'. I record this fact just as I have seen it without attempting to explain it. Many persons who were present at the time can confirm what I have said."

Friday, July 16, 1858.

Obedient to the Bishop and the restrictions of the civil authorities, Bernadette was living peacefully far from the turbulence. On the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she was drawn one final time to Massabielle. The grotto was now blockaded. Bernadette's irresistible call led her across the Gave River to the far side of the meadow. "I thought I was at the Grotto, at the same distance as I was the other times. All I saw was Our Lady ... She was more beautiful than ever." At 8pm Bernadette and the Virgin Mary silently made their final goodbyes amidst a still crowd. She had seen Our Lady from a few hundred yards across the river, and yet she felt as if Mary was right before her.