Located at the base of the Pyrenees mountains in southwest France, Lourdes was long a strategic military stronghold, particularly in the Middle Ages. The French captured this region from the English during the Hundred Years War. It was dominated by a medieval castle which served as protection from foreign sources. But whatever military importance Lourdes enjoyed is now overshadowed by its spiritual importance arising from the visions of a poor peasant girl named Marie-Bernard Soubirous.
Young Marie-Bernard was so small in stature that she was always referred to by the diminutive form of her name, Bernadette. She was born to a very poor family and suffered from poor health throughout her life. It was as a result of her sickly nature that she first encountered the “Beautiful Lady” of Lourdes.
On February 11, 1858, Bernadette set out with her sister and a friend to gather sticks. When it came to crossing the Gave de Pau River, Bernadette chose to stay on dry land near the grotto of Massabielle, “the big rock,” while her sister and her friend waded across the water. Even though it was not a windy day she saw a nearby rosebush moving. As she looked at the bush she saw a beautiful young lady smiling at her. Bernadette was incredulous. She thought that she was seeing things, so in her own words, “I rubbed my eyes, I shut them, I opened them. But the lady was there still continuing to smile at me.” She was dressed in a soft white robe with a blue sash and her hair was partially covered by a long white veil. The lady was barefoot with a yellow rose adorning each foot. She held a golden rosary with large white beads. When Bernadette saw this rosary she immediately pulled out her own rosary which she always kept with her and began praying. According to Bernadette, “The lady let me pray alone; she passed the beads of the rosary between her fingers, but said nothing; only at the end of each decade did she say the Gloria with me.” When they completed the rosary, the lady left in a golden mist.
When Bernadette told her companions what had happened, they were not sure what to believe. This reaction was mild compared to the hostility she would face from the police, the townspeople, even her own priest. But Bernadette remained firm in her devotion to the Lady.
On her third visit to the grotto the Lady asked her to return 15 more times. She said to the young girl, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”
The “Beautiful Lady” had certain requests of Bernadette. During the ninth apparition she told Bernadette to dig in the mud at the back of the grotto. When she did this, she uncovered a muddy spring which began to flow freely and continues to flow to this day. It is this stream which has been the source of many miracles at Lourdes.
When her priest told her to ask the Lady who she was, Bernadette complied. On March 25, 1858, the Lady said to her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This revelation was very important because the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated only four years before this and Bernadette did not even know what these words meant. She had to repeat them all the way home so that she would not forget them. Because of this revelation, even the disbelievers began to believe that the “Beautiful Lady” was the Blessed Virgin Mary. The priest who had asked her to find out the name of the Lady was staggered by the girl’s revelation.
The apparitions of Our Lady to this 14 year old girl had far reaching effects, just as the Blessed Mother intended. In 1862, the local bishop declared the apparitions genuine. The devotion of the faithful to Our Lady of Lourdes had begun, just as Mary had asked. She had also asked that a shrine be built at the site of the apparitions. This was done. When this shrine became too small for the number of pilgrims visiting, a larger shrine was built.
The message of Lourdes is about the healing mercy of God. It is estimated that over 50,000 people afflicted with various illnesses or disabilities come to Lourdes each year. Many are cured, if not physically, then spiritually.
Scientists and medical experts have found no natural cause for the healing effects of the waters of Lourdes. Yet over and over again miracles are declared after careful scrutiny by experts of all kinds. The sick and the lame continue to come to Lourdes for a cure. Some come for a renewal of faith or a spiritual cure.
Lourdes is one of the most visited shrines outside the Holy Land. It has evolved from a stronghold of force to a stronghold of faith. The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes is celebrated on February 11, the date of the first apparition to St. Bernadette.
To avoid the notoriety of her experience, Bernadette entered the convent, where she remained until her death in 1879. She suffered much, but she suffered willingly. When her body was exhumed as part of the canonization process it was found to be perfectly intact. Her incorrupt body can be seen today at the convent at Saint Gilards in Nevers, France. It is worth the trip!