We are all familiar with the sanctuary of Lourdes, one of the main Marian pilgrimage sites in the world, especially those who have travelled with the diocesan pilgrimage which under normal circumstances is in August every year, or maybe, have been independently.

Lourdes, or more specifically the Grotto at Massabielle, is where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly, uneducated but devout fourteen year old girl from a poor destitute family. In total there were eighteen apparitions from 11th February 1858 to 16th July 1858.  

Whilst out collecting wood at the side of the River Gave, Bernadette heard a noise like a wind and then saw a Lady dressed in white dress and veils with a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot, the Lady was in a niche in the rock side some three metres above the ground. Startled and frightened, Bernadette made the sign of the cross and began to pray the rosary with the Lady. When the prayer ended, the Lady vanished.

At the third apparition, the Lady spoke for the first time and asked Bernadette to come to the Grotto for fifteen days. The Lady also told Bernadette that “she did not promise to make her happy in this world, but the next”.

The eighth apparition on Wednesday 24th February was an especially important one in terms of the message of Lourdes. The lady told Bernadette “Penance, Penance, Penance, pray for sinners. Kiss the ground as a penance for sinners!”. This very much influenced the remainder of Bernadette’s actions over the remainder of the apparitions and indeed for the rest of her life.

On the following day, there were about three hundred people at the Grotto, where they witnessed Bernadette going on her knees, kissing the ground intermittently, to the back of the grotto and there scraping in the mud and trying to eat or drink it, she also eat the bitter herbs that were growing there. When questioned about it later she replied, “It is for sinners”. After Bernadette had left the Grotto, some of the people went to see what she had been doing at the back of the grotto, there they found water bubbling up from where Bernadette had been digging, this turned into the spring which to this day flows at around 27000 litres daily.

On the 25th March, Bernadette returned to the grotto, remarkably, the Lady revealed her name as “The Immaculate Conception”. A name that Bernadette would have been ignorant of, as this name had only been declared four years earlier by Pope Pius IX.

During the period of the apparitions and for some time after, Bernadette was questioned intensely by the authorities and the church, she was put under immense pressure to change her story of the apparitions and deny them. However, she was completely resolute, she never wavered in the consistency of her answers and showed no fear of the stern authorities and doctors.

Due to the attention that Bernadette continued to get from the public, those both pious and disbelieving along with the plain curious, Bernadette at the age of sixteen moved into the convent of the Sisters of Nevers in Lourdes, where she learned to read and write, eventually joining them to become a nun.

On 4th July 1866, Bernadette left Lourdes for the last time, on a journey by train that took three days including two overnight stops, arriving at the mother house in Nevers where she was to spend the remainder of her life on 7th July. In October 1867, she made her religious profession. It was customary to give newly professed nuns an assignment away from the Mother House, but in Bernadette’s case the Mother Superior and Bishop Forcade decided that It would be better to keep her in the Mother House to protect her from the curiosity of the public. Bernadette was to work in the convent infirmary, where she had already spent some time as a patient. Bishop Forcade also gave her the “Job of Prayer”.

Bernadette had a great love of caring for the sick, but she became sick herself, being diagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee, and so spent time in the infirmary as both patient and nurse. She did “her work” in this, accepting all crosses, for sinners, in an act of perfect love. “After all, they are our brothers.” During long sleepless nights, she united herself with the Masses celebrated throughout the world, she offered her suffering, through Mary, with her eyes fixed on the crucifix: “That is where I find my strength.”

Bernadette died on April 16th 1879, her dying words were “Blessed Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner”

The Church proclaimed her a saint on 8th December 1933, not for having been chosen for the Apparitions, but for the way in which she responded to that grace during her life.

During the apparitions, Our Lady asked for people to go in procession to the Grotto, and since then many millions of pilgrims have visited Lourdes for the processions and to take the healing waters. Sadly, we cannot travel ourselves this year and we have heard from the Rector of the Sanctuary of Lourdes, Mgr Dumas, that the Shrine is once again closed to all but the very local residents.

Once Bernadette had moved to Nevers, she never returned to Lourdes, but said that “every day I go to my dear Grotto in spirit and make my little pilgrimage there”. During this time, we too, can “go to the Grotto in spirit”.

We are assured that all the chaplains of the sanctuary will be praying throughout the day to bring before God, through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, all intentions received at the shrine. Let us pray for all involved in Lourdes and that we too may soon be able to go in procession as the Blessed Virgin requested.