Saint Bernadette Soubirous (1846-1879)

Bernadette was the firstborn daughter of a miller, François Soubirous, and a laundress, Louise Castérot, who were married in 1843. She was born on January 7, 1844, the first of nine children.

The striking thing about the Soubirous family (whose name means “sovereign” in the local dialect) is the constant dignity they displayed even when extreme poverty reduced them to the lowest financial and social status in town. They practiced charity in spite of their trials. Because he had generously extended credit to too many poor customers, François, had to leave his mill and find day jobs to feed his family. The family was forced to move to a poorly ventilated one-room hovel, formerly used as a jail, referred to as le cachot, or "the dungeon." Several Soubirous children suffered from bad health and one boy died before the age of ten. Bernadette herself had asthma and on several occasions was sent to a nearby farm in Bartrès, to recover. Food was scarce in le cachot too.

Bernadette was obedient to her parents from an early age, doing what was asked with not only docility but also persevering willpower. She showed determination in asking to leave the countryside and return to Lourdes in order to attend catechism classes and be admitted to make her first Communion. Having informed her father, she left Bartrès and bravely returned to live in le cachot, exposing herself again to asthma attacks. At the age of 14, the oldest in her catechism class, she was finally allowed to prepare for her first Communion.

On February 11, 1858, a very beautiful young lady appeared in the grotto of Massabielle, in a natural niche of the rock

In early 1858, two months before Bernadette (still illiterate) was expected to make her first Communion, the Virgin Mary chose to appear to her, in a cave—or grotto. The day was cold and Bernadette had the ‘flu, but still was told to go outside with her sister Toinette and their friend Jeanne to gather wood by the Gave river. Arriving at the place where the river runs along a rocky cavity called "Massabielle," the girls stopped—there were twigs near the cave, on the other side of the river.

Jeanne and Toinette took off their shoes and crossed the river. Because she was sick, Bernadette hesitated at first. Then she made up her mind and followed them. But before she finished taking off her socks, she heard a rush of wind coming from the cave. Looking up, she saw a young and beautiful lady, aged maybe fifteen or sixteen, in a niche of the rock. The lady made the sign of the cross, and smiled at her. First struck with surprise, Bernadette recovered her senses and knelt down. She started reciting, her Rosary in front of the apparition. "When I was finished, ... she made a sign telling me to come closer. But I didn’t dare. Then suddenly, she was gone.”

Pressed by Toinette who from a distance has seen her kneel, Bernadette finally told her sister what happened but asked her to keep it a secret. That same night however, Toinette shared the story with the whole family.

On March 25, 1858, the apparition said: "I am The Immaculate Conception"

Fifteen apparitions took place between February 11th and March 25th, the day in which the “beautiful lady” finally revealed her identity. Meanwhile, trying to prevent people from talking, Bernadette’s parents kept her at home. The public prosecutor threatened to charge her with disturbance of the peace, and the town’s priest Fr. Peyramale showed Bernadette no kindness or support until the Virgin Mary revealed her name: "The Immaculate Conception." When the priest heard this title, still rare at the time even among theologians, from the mouth of an uneducated girl, he changed his mind about the apparitions. On March 25, Fr. Peyramale became a believer!

People flocked to Lourdes from all over France and beyond its borders, to hear what the Mother of God had to say. Her message, which Bernadette is charged to transmit to the world, consisted of two important requests: praying for sinners, and converting our life in a spirit of penance. The Virgin Mary insisted several times on these two requests of prayer and penance. Knowing that Satan’s greatest victory is to make man lose the sense of good and evil, therefore of his own responsibility, we can see the reason for Mary's insistence on recalling the seriousness of sin, in the last decades leading up to the 20th century, a new era that has at many times lost sight of its roots.

The eighteenth and last apparition took place on July 16, 1858, and was silent like the first one. Several miracles had already been reported at the grotte of  Massabielle. In the Soubirous’ home, life became more and more difficult, constantly disrupted by visitors, including well-meaning ones who wanted to give them money. But all donations were systematically refused. One day, because her little brother had accepted a penny from someone who asked him to get him some water from the grotto, Bernadette slapped the boy and ordered him to return the money.

Bernadette’s strong character and tested obedience

If our first movement does not belong to us, "the second one does," Bernadette would say. In 1860, to dissuade the curious, Bernadette was sent to live at the Lourdes hospice with some religious sisters. There for the first time, at age 16, Bernadette was able to attend school, in a real classroom, and she finally learned how to read and write. Her piety was noticeable, but she also acted like a normal girl of her age, having a playful and even mischievous side. With her naturally joyful disposition and assertiveness, she made many friends. They also admired her obedient behavior—Bernadette never disobeyed. After the parish priest forbade her to go to the grotto, someone asked her: "If the Virgin ordered you to go, what would you do?" - ”I would go ask the priest for his permission…" was her reply. The apparitions were certainly a turning point in Bernadette's life.

The Virgin chose me because I am the most ignorant of all!

For eight years, including six at the hospice-school of Lourdes, while catching up with her education, Bernadette gradually discovered what religious life was. She is 22 years old when, on July 7, 1864, after hesitating for a long time in choosing between several congregations, she entered the Sisters of Charity at the Saint Gildard Convent in Nevers, as a novice. Leaving Lourdes was very hard, but she knew that one has not given away anything until one has given away everything. Her situation was not easy—she had become a kind of celebrity. Her picture was sold and newspapers mentioned her on their front pages! The sisters compensated for this outside attention by treating her like any other community member, giving her no special attention.

This double situation only deepened Bernadette’s humility. She, who, like another shepherdess, Saint Joan of Arc—from the humble village of Domrémy—never yielded to vainglory. When visitors asked to see her in the parlor, she would complain to the sisters: "You show me off like a fat ox!" She used to dismiss all marks of respect towards her, believing that they were misplaced. "Don’t I know that if the Virgin chose me, it was because I am the most ignorant of all!" We are strongly reminded of Joan of Arc’s words, when Bernadette, accused of lying and threatened with jail, quipped: "I am ready, throw me in, and make sure the walls are strong and well locked otherwise I will escape!” Or when she told a skeptic priest: "The Virgin asked me to share her message, not to make you believe it."

Sister Marie-Bernard in Nevers

All interrogations were in this vein—her clear replies carried the force of truth and revealed the martial boldness of her interior freedom. The sisters in Nevers attached some value to the presence and the prayer of this postulant, however her superiors were not tender with her. For instance, when the new professed sisters received their assignments, Bernadette, now "Sister Marie-Bernard," wasn’t given any official responsibility because she was considered to be "good for nothing." She ended up taking care of the sick and got so excellent at this task, that unofficially, and despite periods of forced rest due to her poor health, she was effectively in charge of the convent infirmary until November 1873.

After serving seven years in that role, another sister was appointed nurse and Bernadette became her assistant. This was a test of her humility and she could have had good reasons to voice her opinion. But intimacy with God came at a price. One must aspire to do the Father’s will only: "Lord, may your will be done."

Can we find more precious advice than Bernadette’s when she warns against activism, the temptation facing every good and healthy Christian? For her, activism is an obstacle to our vocation and takes four forms:

1. Multiplicity of occupations

2. Misplaced zeal, like that of the foolish virgins

3. Self-seeking

4. Discouragement

"O my Mother, take my heart and bury it deep inside the heart of my Jesus."

After nine years of active religious life, Sister Marie-Bernard had one task left to fulfill—bearing her illness with patience. In moments of respite from acute pain, she did some simple sewing or decorating work. At night, when the huge knee tumor that has completely deformed her leg, kept her awake, she would unite her soul with all the Masses perpetually celebrated around the world. The more she offered her suffering and that of Jesus on the cross, the more her love grew. She implored Jesus: "I would rather be crucified with you than to taste without you all the delights of the century."

On the morning of April 16, 1879, at the end of the week, she was moved one last time from her bed and placed in an armchair in a sitting position to help her breathing. She took a crucifix and pressed it to her heart. When a sister asked her if she was suffering terribly, she whispered, "All of this is good for Heaven." And at three o'clock in the afternoon, she expired after saying "Mary, Mother of God, pray for me a poor sinner," twice.

Geneviève Esquier

Chief editor Marie de Nazareth Association