The Eighteen Apparitions which make up the wondrous event of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s appearance to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 were spread out in a seemingly haphazard manner. The first Apparition was on February 11th, the second on February 14th, the third on February 18th. Then there followed a fortnight of Apparitions between February 19th-March 4th, except for February 22nd and February 26th. After the 15th Apparition on March 4th, Bernadette did not have a visitation until March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Vision revealed her name: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The next to last Apparition was on April 7th, and the final one months later, on July 16th.
The haphazardness of the Apparitions, however, seems less so once we connect them to the time of year in which they occurred. The first Apparition occurred on Thursday of Sexagesima Week, the Second on Sunday in Shrovetide, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Third on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday. The “Fortnight” of Apparitions between February 19th-March 4th encompassed the First Sunday in Lent, the Lenten Ember Days, the Second Sunday in Lent, and the Second Week of Lent through Friday. If we look at the Catholic Liturgy for those days, in the Mass and in the Divine Office as it was at that time, we find some startling correspondence between the Apparitions and the content of faith.
For example, Our Lady directed Bernadette to dig and uncover the spring of water on Thursday, February 25th, 1858. The next day, February 26th, was Ember Friday in Lent. By then the spring water was gushing forth from the Massabielle into the River Gave. The Gospel Lesson for Mass was from John 5:1-15, which relates how Jesus healed a paralyzed man who was lying helplessly by the healing Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The water of Lourdes points us to consider the Pool of Bethesda in the Gospel, which in turn symbolizes the waters of Baptism. Christ’s miracles of healing for physical sickness in the Gospel are given as a sign of His greater divine power to heal the soul of its sickness to sin. Just so, the healing miracles to come through the Lourdes spring are but the outward sign of the inward grace at work in bringing sanctifying grace to human souls. Significantly, Our Lady inexplicably did not appear to Bernadette on the 26th—the day when the spring’s power was made so manifest. It was as if she had stepped back to draw attention to the work of her Divine Son Jesus.
Front Cover: “Healing at the Pool of Bethesda”, by the Danish painter, Carl Bloch, A.D. 1883. This depicts the Scriptural scene of Christ healing a man who had been in a state of paralysis for 38 years, and was lying helplessly by the pool which had the power to heal him. Christ heals him by His word of command. This is the Gospel lesson from Ember Friday in Lent, John 5:1-15, in the Tridentine Roman Missal. In 1858, during the apparitions to Bernadette at Lourdes, Ember Friday fell on February 26th. This was the day on which the Lourdes spring—which Our Lady had revealed to Bernadette the day before—began gushing forth water, also with its power to relieve the sick.
On February 11th we celebrate the patronal feast-day of our parish of Mary Immaculate of Lourdes. One hundred and fifty-four years ago a poor girl named Bernadette Soubirous from the town of Lourdes, France, claimed that she saw a mysterious young girl,
dressed in white, within the rocks of the Massabielle along the River Gave. The report caused a sensation and much controversy
among the Lourdais. In the course of successive apparitions, the mysterious visitor, seen only by Bernadette, revealed to the girl an underground spring by the rocks which began to flow copiously into the River Gave (the famous Lourdes spring). On March 25th, 1858, the visitor gave Bernadette her name: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” After careful investigation, the local Bishop eventually judged the testimony of Bernadette Soubirous as “worthy of belief”. The Church has incorporated a feast of the first apparition of Our Lady at Lourdes into her official liturgy.
One of the objections made to the first promoters of Lourdes was that these outside commentators were superimposing a
sentimentalized and idealized picture of life in the Pyrenees—as if Lourdes was a kind of idyllic, pristine mountain town, solid in its traditions and Christian values, uncontaminated by the currents of godless modernity. Such deliberately crafted sentimentalization, it is true, hardly does justice to the real-world suffering in which Bernadette and her impoverished family lived.
The region of the Upper Pyrenees was generally suffering from worsening economic and social conditions. In 1828, the French government tried to control access to the communal forestland, which covered a third of the mountains. Access to the communal forest, however, was crucial to the survival of the poor. Beginning in the early 1830s armed revolt spread throughout the countryside. It became known as the War of the Demoiselles. Pyrenean men dressed in white after the legendary fairy-spirits who were believed to inhabit the deep woods. They would carry out raids against the forest guards in an effort to recover their historic rights. This civil strife and the government’s attempts to suppress it lasted through the 1850s. By then the women and children carried on the fight by acts of civil disobedience, defiantly taking bundles of wood from the forests despite the penalties which included fines and imprisonment. This was the local world visited by Our Lady in 1858.
Front Cover: An illustration of the Apparition of Our Lady to St. Bernadette Soubirous within the grotto of the massive rock, known by the people of Lourdes as the “Massabielle”, along the bank of the River Gave. Bernadette’s first apparition was on February 11th, 1858. She was to receive 17 more. The last one occurred on July 16th, 1858. Although the picture shows Our Lady as if visible to all, Bernadette alone saw her. The onlookers saw only Bernadette in her ecstasy.