WHEN LOURDES was once described as the “Disneyland of the Catholic Church,” as “God’s Magic Kingdom,” I replied that it is the complete opposite. Disneyland is a commercial enterprise where joy and pleasure are manufactured and paid for. Lourdes is about generosity of spirit where true joy is found in giving time and loving service freely to the sick and those in need.
At the heart of Lourdes stands an encounter of love between a child and a mother, between Bernadette Soubirous and Mary, Mother of God and our mother. That meeting forever changed the face of a small French village and reawakened the spiritual yearnings of people, making Lourdes a worldwide center of pilgrimage.
In 1858, with a population of little more than 3,000, Lourdes was an obscure village amid the Pyrenees in southwestern France. Among its poorest citizens were members of the Soubirous family. With his wife, Louise, and their four children, Francois Soubirous, a miller by trade, had fallen upon hard times. In 1857 they were forced to live in the Cachot, an abandoned jail.
On Thursday, February 11, 1858, life changed dramatically and decisively for Bernadette. On a cold, damp day, her simple search for firewood initiated an amazing encounter with heaven. Bernadette, her sister Toinette and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, were searching for firewood. At a rocky recess in a place known as Massabielle, where the river currents washed up driftwood and other debris, Bernadette had a vision that left an indelible imprint on her heart and began the story that is Lourdes.
In this grotto she saw a “Lady dressed in white with a blue sash and a yellow rose on each foot, the color of her rosary.” Who the “Lady” was became the subject of much debate. There were 18 apparitions in all, the last one occurring on July 16, 1858.
As news reached the townspeople and neighboring districts, people flocked to the grotto. With the discovery of a spring of water, and the news of healings taking place, the crowds grew.
For Bernadette it was a time of private ecstasy and public hell. She was mocked and ridiculed by some. A 14-year-old illiterate child, she was hounded by police and local authorities, interrogated and even threatened with prison. In the face of this adversity, she remained steadfast. Even the local priest, the Abbé Peyramale, who was skeptical at first, eventually believed her.
He became convinced when, at the ninth apparition on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the “Lady” said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Peyramale knew that a poor, uneducated child with no formal religious training or doctrinal knowledge could never have invented such a title—a dogma only proclaimed by the Church in 1854.
After four years of stringent Church investigation, the clear evidence of Bernadette’s credibility and many cases of inexplicable healing, the local bishop, in a pastoral letter dated January 18, 1862, declared, “Truly, the Blessed Virgin Mary did appear to Bernadette.”
Bernadette remained in Lourdes until 1866 when she joined the Sisters of Charity and Christian Learning at Nevers in northern France. She remained there until her death on April 16, 1879.
Lourdes has become a place of pilgrimage and healing, but even more of faith. Church authorities have recognized over 60 miraculous cures, although there have probably been many more. To people of faith this is not surprising. It is a continuation of Jesus’ healing miracles—now performed at the intercession of his mother. Some would say that the greater miracles are hidden. Many who visit Lourdes return home with renewed faith and a readiness to serve God in their needy brothers and sisters. There still may be people who doubt the apparitions of Lourdes. Perhaps the best that can be said to them are the words that introduce the film The Song of Bernadette: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”