When I was in high school, I used to walk the 20 or so blocks to the home of my aunt and uncle to visit with them either after school in the afternoon or on the weekends or during the summer. One day, my aunt showed me a new book that she and her husband were reading. It was called “The Song of Bernadette,” written by an Austrian author named Franz Werfel. I began to read it then and there, and couldn’t put it down!
I asked my aunt to let me take it home with me, but she said no, not until she and her husband had finished it. I could hardly wait! From then for several weeks afterwards, I went to read the book there, and loved every minute of it. Evidently, many had that same experience, because very soon, Hollywood made an extremely popular movie out of it starring a young, hitherto unknown actress named Jennifer Jones. I’m sure that to this day, people who saw the movie associate Jennifer Jones with Saint Bernadette Soubirous.
In 1967, I was able to go to Europe for the first time; to study French in a federally funded program. And while there, I realized my dream of going to Lourdes, the town in southwestern France where Our Blessed Mother appeared in 1858. What an opportunity! Different shrines strike different ones differently, but Lourdes is certainly most people’s favorite. There is a charm, a beauty, a holiness about the place that is powerful. The train that my fellow-travelers and I took to get there from Tours, the city where we were studying, arrived in Lourdes about 9:30 at night. It slowed down as it approached the depot, and passed along a meadow across the little river which flows before the grotto where Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette. We could hear the prayers and the singing of the thousands of pilgrims taking part in the night procession with candles in what is called “the domain of the grotto.” The gentle repetition of the refrain, “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria” was deeply moving, almost hypnotic. During subsequent years, I have been back there a number of times, always to fall under the same spell of veneration of the lovely lady who stood in the grotto there and said to Saint Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
The message which the Mother of Jesus gave and gives to the world at Lourdes is manifold. One element of it is her own beauty and charm and attractiveness. The very sight of her would place the 14-year-old girl into a trance when she appeared to her. Another was the love of Our Lady for the Rosary; she carried one on her arm during the apparitions, and the main means of communication between the “beautiful lady” and the ecstatic teenager was their recitation of the Rosary. The “beautiful lady” whose identity was still unknown asked Bernadette to pray for sinners and do penance for them. She asked that processions be allowed to come to the spot; she instructed Bernadette to drink from “the spring” and wash there. Not the river; the spring. But Bernadette saw no spring, so she began to dig with her hands in the muddy earth on the floor of the grotto. A little water began to well up. That water is flowing to this day and has been the occasion of many cures, so that today, the entire town of Lourdes is a great center where the sick are received, housed, cared for, and occasionally cured. And just as thousands of the sick go from all over the world to seek help there, so do thousands of others go there to assist them in their rolling beds, their wheelchairs, their walkers, crutches, and various therapeutic devices. There is a wonderful silence around the domain of the grotto despite the presence of so many people. The one sound that IS heard is the cry “Attention aux maladies”—Make way for the sick—as the rolling beds and wheelchairs are guided through the crowds to and from the grotto or the baths. And often people are seen passing back and forth before the grotto, and kneeling down to kiss the earth there as Our Lady asked Bernadette to do.
To bring to an end this meditation on Lourdes, let me tell you that when Bernadette herself was dying, after become a nun in the city of Nevers, she was asked in jest by a young novice who had come to tidy up her infirmary room, “What are you doing for the good of our community, my Sister?” The dying saint, lying quite still in her bed, answered very simply and seriously, “I am being sick.” Those of us who must be sick, let us offer our sicknesses in union with the sufferings and death of our Divine Lord where they take on great value. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.