The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. Lourdes part 4.

bernadette at 15 Bernadette aged 15

At length the Bishop of Tarbes spoke. His doctrinal decision came forth : it was published in January, 1862, and was to constitute a rock on which, humanly speaking, the Lourdes devotion was to be henceforward built. In the first article of this important document we read as follows:

"We judge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, really appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11th, 1858, and on succeeding days to the number of eighteen times in the Grotto of Massabiello, close to the town of Lourdes."

In the second article we read to the following effect: "In order to act in conformity with the wish expressed more than once by the Blessed Virgin in the course of the Apparitions, we propose to erect a chapel on the site of the Grotto, which site is now the property of the Bishop of Tarbes." Then followed an appeal to the faithful of all classes and countries for help in erecting the chapel in question. The pastoral letter in which this doctrinal judgment was made known was ordered to be read in the different churches and chapels of the diocese of Tarbes. Subscriptions began coming in at once from all parts.

In the meantime Bernadette had been growing up. She was now near nineteen years of age. The events that had so strongly influenced her life had left her outwardly much as others of her age and class. She remained simple and modest, with a face sweet and winning, and with ailing health as when a child. It was this, her state of health, that had led the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, with whom she had made her first communion, to offer her a home in their establishment.

Her parents in their poverty lived near. Though this poverty was at times extreme, neither they nor their favoured child could ever be induced to accept the slightest gratuity from any of the countless persons with whom Bernadette came constantly in contact. And this abnegation in the face of exceptionally necessitous circumstances continued unto the end.

We have said that outwardly Bernadette was much as others of her age ; in reality, she was far from being like others. Appearing to have but ordinary intelligence in ordinary matters, when called on to speak on the subject of the Apparitions she became a changed being. Then her manner of expressing herself and her replies were singularly apt and lucid. Though for eight years almost daily the object of cross-questioning and examination on the part of the outside world, she was never known to contradict herself or show the slightest discrepancy in her statements. And she was as much mistress of the situation in dealing with consummate theologians as with ordinary persons. She may even he said to have more than once, by her replies, put a bishop in a corner. It was this, so to speak, dual personality of hers that added considerably to the interest she inspired. We may remember, by the way, that a similar double personality under similar circumstances had distinguished the two children of La Salette.

Doctors had had their eyes on Bernadette from the beginning, and those who had closely studied her, as Doctors Dozous and Vergez had done, had pronounced her mind to be free from the slightest morbid taint. By the adverse party she had been attacked on the score of hallucination and hypnotism, and was to be so until long after she was in her grave. But charges under this head had been conclusively rolled back from the onset, and were to be rolled back later on in the name of science by such fore most apologists of the Lourdes cause as Dr. Boissarie and Dr. de Saint Macloud.

If hallucination, as scientifically defined, can be but the remembrance of something perceived by the senses, Bernadette, to use the words of the Bishop of Tarbes in his pastoral letter pronouncing on the authenticity of the Apparitions, "saw what she had never seen before, and listened to that which she had never heard before." If hypnotism means a nervous sleep under certain conditions, and the substitution of another's will in the place of that of the person hypnotised, Bernadette was far from answering to this definition. Sleep of no kind whatever had part in her experiences at the Grotto. During each of her ecstasies, while beholders saw a beauty not of earth reflected on her countenance, she remained perfect mistress of her senses and actions, and conscious, moreover, of what was going on around. No power of " suggestionism " was infusing into her mind that ideal type of beauty that she was gazing on, which, at each of the eighteen Apparitions, was distinct, clearly-cut, and the same, and of which creative genius in the past had given no prototype. Contradictors should ask whence this vision came, and with it the Lourdes message so full of meaning and big with consequences for the Christian world. Not from a disordered brain.

In taking this wide glance at Bernadette from a scientific point of view, we are losing sight of her at about nineteen years of age and having her home with the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Up to this time she seems to have shewn no sign of a religious vocation. We are now about to have the first indication of what her ideas were in this direction.

About this time Mgr. Forcade, Bishop of Nevers, went to Lourdes. One of the first things he did there was to call on the Sisters of Nevers, with the object of seeing Bernadette. His first view of the young" girl was as she sat in a kitchen peeling carrots. Later on in the same day, at his own request, he was confronted with her in the parlour. He then questioned her concerning the Apparitions, and was astonished at the ease and lucidity of her replies. Afterwards he questioned her as to her future. The conversation under this head began as follows :—

“And now, dear child, tell me what you think of doing with yourself."
"Nothing, Monseigneur" was the reply, after a moment's hesitation.
"Why, everybody in this world must do something."
“I am with the Sisters," was the timid rejoinder. “
“I know you are, but you cannot remain with them always."
"Why not, Monseigneur I should like to do so?"
"It is easy to talk like that, but it would be less easy to carry what you say into effect. It is not because you have been received here for a time, out of charity, that you can expect to remain here always."

Bernadette, failing to see what there was to prevent her from remaining indefinitely where she was, the bishop continued : "In order to be admitted into a community of nuns, it is necessary to be a nun, and you are not one." " It is true” he added, " the Sisters of Nevers are allowed to have servants when they need them, but you are not even a servant here. You are, in truth, nothing, as you said just now."

Here Bernadette remained thoughtful and silent.

The prelate continued: "You are no longer a child, and perhaps you would like to marry and settle in life."

"Oh, no, indeed," was the quick reply.

“Then why do you not become a nun ? Have you never thought of doing so ?"

“ It is impossible!" said Bernadette.” You know, Monseigneur, that I am poor and that I shall never have the money necessary for that."

“That obstacle, dear child, is one that might be easily got over." “When," continued Mgr. Forcade, “we come across a girl without money but having a real vocation, we do not hesitate to receive her without a dower."

“But” Bernadette ventured to say, “girls thus received are clever and educated, and that makes up for their having no money. As for me, not only have I no money, but also I am good for nothing."
“You underrate your abilities," said the bishop ; “ I saw with my own eyes this morning that you are good for something."

“For what, Monseigneur"
“ For scraping carrots ! "
Bernadette laughed. “ That is not difficult," she said.

" No matter ; people are needed who can scrape carrots and who are willing to scrape them."
After listening to further arguments tending to show that menial offices are required in convents, she answered :

"Since that is so, Monseigneur, I will think over what you say ; but at present my mind is not made up."

Mgr. Forcade ended by letting Bernadette know that, if in the future she should wish to embrace the religious life as a Sister of Chanty of Nevers, she had only to write to him.

Bernadette said nothing of the subject of the conversation that had taken place between her and the Bishop ; but, at the end of a year, she sought the Superioress of. the community, and informed her that she should like to enter the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Mgr. Forcade was communicated with, and his reply was that the convent of St. Gildard, the mother-house of the congregation, was open to receive Bernadette as a novice.

Bernadette fell ill again and again, and was thus unable to enter upon the religious life until three years later. It was in the summer of 1866 that she left Lourdes for ever, to become a spouse of Christ under the nun's veil. The day before her departure she went to take a last look at the Grotto of Massabiello. She was accompanied thither by two or three of the nuns. On reaching the spot she fell on the ground and wept. She kissed the ground, murmuring words of tenderness and sorrow. Those with her, moved by her poignant grief, tried more than once to urge her away. Each time she begged to be allowed to remain a little longer. At length, gentle force was used and she was led from the scene. Obeying, but turning back to take a last look of the rock she was never to see again, she seemed suddenly to put all weakness on one side. She at once became calm and resigned.

On the way home, one of the nuns expostulating with her on her too great sorrow, said:

“You know the Blessed Virgin will hear you wherever you are."

“Yes," said Bernadette ; "but the Grotto was my Heaven."

The following morning she left Lourdes for the convent of St. Gildard. We shall glance at her later on as Sister Marie-Bernard.

In the meantime, the nucleus of modern Lourdes had been forming. The doctrinal decision of the Bishop of Tarbes had had an immense effect on the Catholic world. The affluence from all parts to the little Pyrenean town continued to increase.

The year 1864 saw the first public manifestation in honour of the Apparitions in which the Church took part. An imposing procession, composed of the people of Lourdes and of four hundred surpliced priests with the bishop at their head, made its way through the town to the Grotto of Massabiello, and there, amid the religious rejoicings of the multitude, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was placed in the niche of the rock which Bernadette had seen illumined eighteen times as with a light not of earth. Thus was the first step taken in the realization of the words of the Lourdes message:

"I wish people to come here in procession."

The chapel also asked for in this same Lourdes message was already growing to the proportions of a stately church. The workman to the fore in the plan of its erection was the stalwart priest who had at first been Bernadette's severe catechist, and who afterwards became her staunch friend and protector. We allude, of course, to Abbe Peyramale. It was with mingled feelings of pride and love that the cure of Lourdes watched the edifice rise in its tapering Gothic beauty. Shortly before, the crypt had been consecrated and opened to public worship.

By 1870 changes had taken place around. The waters of the Gave had been driven back, the spot was in charge of missionaries of the Immaculate Conception, and, in short, Massabiello was beginning to wear something of its aspect of today.

During the previous ten years the stream of cures, regarded as miraculous, had continued and widened. The cure of Henri Lasserre, historian of the Lourdes Apparitions, belongs to this period. The eye affection from which M. Lasserre was suffering was a hyperenne or congestion of the pupil. He had been under treatment by the two most eminent oculists of the day—Doctors Demarres and Giraud-Toulon—both of whom had discovered in his case a lesion of the retina. Notwithstanding all that science could do, his sight became worse, and blindness at no distant date was feared. A perfect and instantaneous cure of M. Lasserre's eyes was effected by a single application of Lourdes water, this application being made, not at Lourdes, but in Paris. The curious side of the case was that M. Lasserre had been induced by his Protestant friend, M. de Freycinet, to have recourse to the water of Massabiello.

With the beginning of the next ten years a fresh era was to commence at Lourdes. The extraordinary impulse which the pilgrimage movement in France received from events immediately after the Franco-German war was to find its fullest expression at Lourdes. The year 1873, which saw upwards of 3,000,000 pilgrims at different French shrines, saw 250,000 at Lourdes alone. It may be safely said that Europe had seen nothing similar to this religious movement since the time of the Crusades.

In this same remarkable year of 1873 the Augustinians of the Assumption who, the year before at La Salette, had been instrumental in forming the Pilgrimage Committee, launched into being the National Pilgrimage to Lourdes. The following year saw a contingent of sick pilgrims forming part of the National Pilgrimage. These pilgrims being for the most part poor, the means of thus conveying them to the Grotto of Massabiello was the result of charitable contributions. The sick contingent of the beginning has, with time, grown to something like a thousand destitute, suffering, and sometimes dying persons, who yearly form part of the National Pilgrimage to Lourdes. In those early days the national pilgrims needed but two trains to take them to their destination ; now, thirty years later, they need eighteen.

In July, 1876, the votive church in honour of Notre-Dame de Lourdes was consecrated by Mgr. Guibert, Archbishop of Paris, the Pope having raised the building to the dignity of a Roman basilica. Six archbishops and twenty-one bishops took part in the magnificent ceremony.

The year 1877 saw the death of the indefatigable cure of Lourdes, known at that time as Mgr. Peyramale, the Pope having conferred on him the title of Apostolic Protonotary.

Another death was shortly to occur, that of a sweet child-like being in nun's garb whom we have known as Bernadette Soubirous. We will glance at Sister Marie-Bernard for a moment before she is taken from this world. Retaining to the last her joyous elasticity of spirit, and learning to walk ever more manfully in the way of the cross, she had become an almost perfect religious. This does not mean that her nature had acquired the serenity and self-mastery of the perfect. At times pain wrung from her words of impatience, of which she quickly repented. The Divine words heard by St. Paul are applicable in her case: "Strength is made perfect in weakness."

As Bernadette neared her last home, her large lustrous eyes became larger and more lustrous. The day that was to see her leave this earth saw her on her bed with her arms extended in the form of a cross. This was the Wednesday of Easter week, April 16th, 1878; and, as if to render her end still more like that of Him whom one of the most luminous-minded of modern priests calls the "eternal Lover of our souls," she died at three o'clock in the afternoon, while almost her last words were: "I thirst!" Quite her last words were: "Holy Mary, Mother of God." These died on her lips as her spirit fled. She was buried in the convent grounds, while nature was bursting into life around, and Easter alleluias were lingering in the air.

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