The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. Lourdes part 3.


Three weeks had elapsed since the last Apparition. The day of the Annunciation dawned bright and clear. More persons than usual had gone to the Grotto that morning, but little imagining what was in store for them.

Bernadette, by an intuitive sense that never failed her on these occasions, knew that she was about to see the Apparition. When she reached Massabiello at an early hour, a number of persons were assembled there before her. These she hardly noticed ; but what she did notice was that the aperture in the rock was already alight with its golden glow, and that within the aureole the Apparition was standing.

Alluding afterwards to her first impression on gazing at the illumined niche, she said ; " She was there, calm and smiling, and looking down on the crowd as a fond mother looks at her children."

The current of communication between the peasant girl on her knees and the Heavenly visitant began. When Bernadette, as she afterwards described it, had said all that was in her heart to say, she began saying her Rosary.

Meanwhile, spectators fed their faith and enthusiasm by gazing at her countenance, which was for the time ideally beautiful. People were hoping that a message was being conveyed : and a message was being conveyed — one that was to illumine with fresh radiance the dogma proclaimed by the Catholic Church four years before.

In order that the reader may well understand the scene that \vas going on, it may be well to forestall Bernadette in the explanation she afterwards gave to the crowd. It may be remembered that in the course of the previous Apparitions she had, more than once, asked the celestial visitant to say who she was. This had been at the instigation of others, because in her child's heart she had never doubted as to the personality of her who conversed with her from the rock. For answer she had never received other than a gracious movement of the head and a smile. On this day of the Annunciation, praying, rosary in hand, and looking up, she tells us that suddenly she felt impelled to again ask the Apparition to say who she was. Conquering her hesitation, she did so, and received the same reply, namely, a smile and a gracious movement of the head. She made the request a second time, and received the same answer. Still irresistibly impelled, as she says, she entreated a third time, and with joined hands and with all the intensity of which she was able. The answer came. It must be given in the child's own words :

" I had asked a third time," says Bernadette ; " she seemed to become more serious and to wear a look of deeper humility. Then she joined her hands and raised them high against her breast. Then she cast her eyes upwards ; then unfolding her hands and letting them slowly fall, and bending towards me, she said in a voice that trembled a little : “I am the Immaculate Conception.''

Bernadette's voice trembled also as she repeated the words. More than this, in repeating them, she imitated, though perhaps unconsciously, the attitude and gesture of the Apparition.

Those who heard fell on their knees. A moment or two afterwards their feelings found expression in littering as with one voice : " O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!" A wave of strong emotion passed over the crowd. Numbers kissed the rock whence had proceeded the words : " I am the Immaculate Conception ! "

The news sped like lightning that the Apparition had at length proclaimed herself, and that it was indeed Mary the Immaculate who had appeared at the Lourdes Grotto.

Bernadette lost no time in letting Abbe Peyramale know the message she had received. M. Henri Lasserre tells us in his book, Notre-Dame dc Lourdes, that on her way to the priest's house, she kept repeating to herself the words : " I am the Immaculate Conception," in order, as she said, not to forget them. It is worth mentioning that she did not in the least know what these words meant. Later on in the same day she went to see M. Estrade and his sister. The former in his book Les Apparitions de Lourdes, tells us that an angel's visit would not have been more welcome. She again described the scene of the morning, and tried with ineffable sweetness, even shedding tears the while, to convey to her hearers something of the impression that had been left on her own innocent mind. It was seeing as well as hearing Bernadette as she repeated the words, "I am the Immaculate Conception" that gave some idea of the vision of Heaven that had been vouchsafed her.

Later on, the sculptor Fabisch saw and heard her as she uttered the words and reproduced the look and attitude of the Apparition. " It was a revelation to me," he said; "never shall I forget the child's look. My statue was composed at once. Each time," he continues, " I asked for the same pose, her countenance became illumined and transfigured by the same expression."

When the artist's work was done, and he had, as he thought, realized his ideal, Bernadette was confronted with the marble statue.

It is beautiful ! " she exclaimed ; " but oh, not like Her ! There is as much difference between the two as between day and night."

Those who denied the supernatural character of the phenomena at Massabiello were exasperated at the turn things were taking. Those who had believed that the manifestation at the Grotto of March 4th was to be the last of the kind saw their calculations completely upset by the one on the day of the Annunciation.

Among the adverse lookers-on was Baron de Massy, Prefect of the department, living at Tarbes. This functionary was to be the chief wire-puller in the scheme of opposition brought to bear upon the Lourdes phenomena in those early days. As M. Boulard, Minister of Public Worship, was writing to him about this time on the subject of what was going on at Lourdes, he thought the moment had come for taking active steps. Accordingly, he called on Mgr. Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes, with the object of getting the manifestations at Massabiello put a stop to. But the prelate refused to interfere, his policy being to watch and wait.

In the perplexity of the moment, and in presence of the sublime manifestation of the 25th, which had had the effect of drawing people to the Grotto in greater numbers than before, the only expedient the Prefect could think of was that of declaring Bernadette mad. His next step was to have her examined by a medical jury. The jury saw no sign of aberration of intellect in the little girl. Enemies had to wait.

There was another Apparition on April 7th, remarkable for the now well-known phenomenon of the lighted candle.

Dr. Dozous gives us an account of what then took place. He at first saw Bernadette kneeling in rapt attitude with her rosary in her hands. Then he saw her begin her customary ascent on her knees to the spot beneath the wild rosebush. For some reason or another she stopped short in this ascent and brought the lighted taper in her right hand beneath the open fingers of her left one. The flame sped upward through the open fingers of her left hand, and with all the greater rapidity owing to a brisk wind blowing at the time. A good number of people saw what was going on, and Bernadette would certainly have been saved from what was considered imminent danger had not Dr. Dozous interfered.

The medical man would not allow her to be touched or spoken to. He took out his watch and noticed that she remained in the same attitude for a quarter of an hour with the flame passing through her fingers and seeming to leave them uninjured. At the end of about a quarter of an hour she continued her ascent up the rock. When all was over and she had come back to her place, and the inward light had faded from her face, the doctor asked to look at her left hand. He took the hand she held out to him and examined it carefully. There was upon it no sign of the action of fire. He asked for the taper she had held, lighted it, and put the flame for a moment close to her fingers. He did the same thing more than once. Each time Bernadette quickly drew her hand away, saying, " You are burning me ! "

Dr. Diday, of Lyons, one of the contradictors of the Lourdes miracles, alluding to this case of the lighted taper, and with the object of disproving its supernatural character, cites as an authority M. Hoffmann. The argument he borrows is to the effect that persons under the influence of hypnotic suggestion become insensible to pain. But, as Mgr. Ricard in his book La Vraie Bernadette de Lourdes remarks, and as Dr. Boissarie had re marked before him, a medical man has no right to confound a lesion with the pain caused by that lesion. He goes on to say in his work : " Bernadette in ecstasy might have lost all sense of pain, this being a phenomenon observable in nervous affections when the patient is under the influence of hypnotism, chloroform, cocaine, etc. Anaesthesia may be produced under certain physical conditions and interpreted according to natural laws ; but if the body of a person under these conditions be brought into contact with fire, the destruction of the tissue by burning must take place whether the patient feels it or not."

The advent of the month of May caused a still greater affluence of people to the Grotto. About this time Baron de Massy paid a visit to Lourdes. Then began a system of petty tyranny and flagrant injustice, with which, in the name of the law, the new devotion was to be fought for the space of five months.

It is true we have seen little Bernadette in the beginning brought before M. Jacomet, the Police Commissary ; but we have also seen that there was no weapon in the law's arsenal which could be brought to bear against her. We have seen the Prefect trying to prove that she was mad ; but this, too, had failed. Apart from these two instances threatening personal liberty, the new movement of devotion, emanating from the Grotto and acting irresistibly on impetuous multitudes, had been allowed pretty much to have its own way. The action of the opposition had been principally confined to writing and reviling. Almost every anti-clerical organ in the country had taken the matter up.

As may be supposed, the Catholic Press had also kept its public informed of what was going on in the favoured little Pyrenean town. Meanwhile, the pool of Bethsaida opened up by Bernadette continued to do its work, fresh cures effected by its water being constantly rumoured abroad.

Baron de Massy's visit to Lourdes took place early in May. In presence of the religious manifestations at Massabiello, the Prefect could, for the moment, think of no better expedient for quelling the new devotional movement than that of ordering the Grotto to be stripped of the different emblems of piety that were already giving it the aspect of a little chapel. Such an order was given and carried out, much to the indignation of the greater part of the Lourdes population.

The adverse party seized upon a circumstance about this time which offered them an ostensibly good weapon. M. Latour, a chemist of Trie, in analysing the water of the spring of the Grotto already regarded as miraculous, admitted that it might contain medicinal properties. Here then, said adversaries, may be the explanation of the cures effected in connection with the water. Baron de Massy remembered that medicinal springs came under state control, and lost no time in putting the Grotto under an interdict. He at once ordered it to be enclosed with palings. Thus no one was hence forth to set foot in the precincts to which thousands of people had had free access during the previous four months.

A certain number of Lourdes workmen, principally stone-cutters, took the matter up. Favoured by darkness, they went in a body at night and pulled the palings down. These were replaced the following day by order of the local authorities. The next night they were again pulled down. This performance was repeated three or four times. Party spirit ran high, angry feelings were rife, and the movement might have ended in bloodshed but for the timely interference of a single man. This man was the cure of Lourdes. It was not that Abbe Peyramale did not sympathize with the men in their righteous indignation, being as he was completely won over to the cause of Bernadette and the Lourdes phenomena. Moreover, he would probably have been able to say then in his conscience, as Mgr. Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes, said later on in words : "I believe in Bernadette as I do in my Credo;" but he was a man of peace and order, and he would not consent to members of his flock being in open rebellion against lawful authority. So, after reasoning with these headstrong parishioners of his, he preached to them from the pulpit.

The men listened and were moved. They loved their parish priest; so afterwards, outside the church, they went up to him and offered him their brawny hands to shake, and promised to submit. Thus the Grotto precincts remained enclosed with palings which shut out the public, while the fame of the Lourdes Apparition was spreading far beyond France.

On July i6th, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, there was another Apparition. On the afternoon of that day Bernadette had felt, as on previous occasions when she was about to see the Apparition, an impulse to go to the Grotto. Accordingly, thither she went accompanied by one of her aunts.

It was evening when they reached the spot.

Others were there before them. They took up their position on the farther bank of the Gave, facing the palings enclosing the Grotto. The oval aperture in the rock remained open to the view of all. Bernadette's eyes were fixed upon it at once. She knelt down, lifted her hands in prayer, and then almost immediately exclaimed: "She is there! She is smiling at us from over the barrier ! "

Her upward glance and forward-bent attitude, and the expression of more than human joy that lit her face, told spectators what was going on. She was having her last glimpse of Heaven by the rock of Massabiello. This time there was no message for the Christian world ; there were no words for Bernadette herself as on previous occasions. The Apparition only looked and smiled ; but in that look and in that smile the small, frail girl drank in happiness too great for human words to express.

When the glorious Apparition had departed, the sun was sinking beyond the horizon, having just before suffused with roseate gold the rolling Gave, while its last pink flushes were still lingering on the mountain heights around. But Bernadette saw nothing of this. She rose from her knees, carrying with her the remembrance of a vision beside which the beauty of the material world was as darkness.

A bishop was among the visitors at Massabiello in July. This was Mgr. Thibaud, Bishop of Mont-pellier. The prelate was confronted with Bernadette and closely examined her. Conversing with M. Estrade, he heard as follows : " Monseigneur, I have seen celebrated actresses on the stage. These were but as grimacing and gesticulating statues beside Bernadette. These, by dint of great effort, succeeded in portraying human passions ; she, as an angel might have done, reflected in her person the virtues and beatitude of Heaven." Mgr. Thibatid left Lourdes a firm believer in the Apparitions.

About that time the Bishop of Tarbes appointed a commission to inquire into the Lourdes phenomena. This body could not begin its work at once because of the restrictions on the Grotto.

Early in August the water of the spring became again the object of chemical analysis, the analyst this time being M. Filhol, a reputed chemist of Toulouse. The result was to distinctly affirm that the water in question contained no medicinal property whatever.

Great was the disappointment of the adverse party on hearing this, and great the joy of the advocates of the Lourdes miracles. Henceforth the Prefect had not the shadow of an excuse for excluding the public from the Grotto precincts on the ground that the spring therein might possibly come under state control. Nevertheless, obstinacy and prejudice continuing to prevail in Baron de Massy's mind, the site of the Apparitions continued to remain forbidden ground. But the fiat of one high in authority was about to scatter to the winds the orders of subalterns.

Napoleon III., going to Cauterets in the autumn of 1858, heard something of what was going on at Lourdes. Complaints were even made to him concerning the tyrannical measures in connection with the Grotto.

The Emperor saw clearly into the matter at once, and gave orders that the Grotto should be immediately thrown open to the public.

Shortly afterwards Prefect de Massy was transferred from Tarbes to Grenoble, and, about the same time, M. Jacomet, the Police Commissary of Lourdes, was sent to Aries.

Oppression by the civil power was to cease now, and the new devotion was to beat liberty to expand. Here we will look back.

We have seen this devotion in the beginning struggling under the grip of the law, believed in by the people, but practically disowned by the clergy, who, as we know, acted in the matter according to the advice they had received from their bishop.

The cure of Lourdes, sceptical at first, and soon afterwards a staunch believer, did not change his line of conduct at once. He, with the priests under him, continued to keep in the back ground concerning everything in connection with Massabiello.

This abstention on the part of the clergy was, historically speaking, to be one of the best arguments in favour of the Lourdes phenomena. Unprotected and unaided, with a fierce light beating upon it from without, and a butt to the anti-clerical press throughout the country, the new devotion was, during the first eight months of its history, proving its right to live.

The period of probation over, with trammels removed and the Grotto thrown open, the Ecclesiastical Commission appointed by the Bishop of Tarbes began its work at once. It had at its head Dr. Vergez, of the medical faculty of Montpellier, a man already eminent in his profession.

Like Dr. Dozous in the same matter, Dr. Vergez went to the task as an impartial man of science, and like this same Dr. Dozous, he came from it a firm believer in the supernatural character of the Lourdes phenomena.

Among the numerous cures, regarded as miraculous in connection with the water of the Grotto, which had taken place in that year, 1858, thirty of the most salient were chosen for consideration. Of these, Dr. Vergez set aside all that left the slightest ground for explanation by natural laws. The Commission pushed its enquiries into the neighbouring dioceses of Bayonne and Audi, certain of its members going from town to town and from village to village with the object of obtaining information and weighing facts. When, a few months later, the result of the labours of the Commission was submitted to the Bishop of Tarbes, that prelate, though perfectly satisfied himself, forbore delivering a doctrinal decision on the subject. He waited, thus allowing three years to pass. At the end of that time he appointed a second Commission to enquire into the same facts. The conclusions arrived at were the same as before. Face to face with these results, and in reference to the cures classed as miraculous, Dr. Vergez delivered him self thus :

" In glancing at these cures, taken collectively, one is at once struck by the ease and spontaneity with which they spring from their producing cause. In them we seem to be in presence of an open violation and complete upsetting of therapeutic methods, of a declared contradiction of scientific precepts and forecasting. There is, acting behind these cures, a careful, though concealed arrangement and combination of circumstances, which shows them to be effected outside the operation of nature's laws. Such phenomena are beyond the comprehension of the human mind. How, in short, understand in these cases the simplicity of the means used com pared with the greatness of the results obtained, the unity of the remedy applied compared with the diversity of the diseases to which it is applied, and the shortness of time required for the action of the curative agent in question, compared with the length of time required for the application of the treatments of art and science? How, in short, reconcile the often chronic nature of these diseases with the often instantaneous character of their cure? Here we have certainly to deal with a contingent force superior to the forces of nature, and consequently extraneous to the water which this force makes use of in order to show its power."

From - The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century (1904) by Bernard St John