You know how I am about anniversaries. Well, this weekend has a big one: Sunday is the 160th anniversary of the first apparition at Lourdes of Our Lady to Saint Bernadette Soubirous, our parish patroness. For as often as we use those names, not everyone is familiar with what happened in that village at the foot of the Pyrenees for the first time on this very date. So here is a refresher:
The apparitions at Lourdes took place only four years after the solemn proclamation by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and given their nature it is only natural to see a strong link between the two.
On Thursday, 11 February 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a beautiful young girl in a niche at a rocky outcrop called Massabielle, about a half mile outside the town. She was near a wild rose bush and surrounded by a brilliant light and a golden cloud, smiling, with her arms extended towards Bernadette, who took out her rosary beads.
When she had finished praying the rosary, the apparition beckoned to Bernadette, but she did not move and the girl smiled at her before disappearing. She later described how she had seen a young girl of about her own age and height, clothed in a brilliant and unearthly white robe, with a blue girdle around her waist and a white veil on her head.
This was the beginning of a whole sequence of apparitions, eighteen in all, which occurred during the spring and early summer of 1858. Mary first spoke to Bernadette on 18 February when she asked her if she would come to the grotto for a fortnight. Thursday, 25 February, saw a crowd of about three hundred, and the discovery that was to make Lourdes famous, that of the miraculous spring in the grotto.
During subsequent apparitions, Mary asked for a chapel and processions; but Fr Peyramale, the local parish priest, insisted that the Lady would have to reveal her name before anything could be done about such matters. Early on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette again made her way to the grotto, where the beautiful Lady was already waiting for her. Bernadette asked the Lady her name, and after joining her hands at the breast and looking up to heaven she said, I am the Immaculate Conception.
Bernadette hurried off toward the presbytery, repeating the Lady's strange words, so as not to forget them. She met Fr. Peyramale and left him dumbfounded with the words "I am the Immaculate Conception”; he realized that the Lady had indeed answered his request for her name. Although the message of Lourdes was now complete, Bernadette again saw Mary on the Wednesday after Easter, April 7, remaining in an ecstasy for about three quarters of an hour.
Bernadette was able to receive her First Holy Communion on the feast of Corpus Christi, and significantly she saw Mary for the last time from outside the grotto, on 16 July, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The local bishop, Bishop Laurence, on July 28 set up a Canonical Commission to investigate the apparitions and their cause. This body first interviewed Bernadette in mid-November, and was impressed by her testimony and by a growing number of cures. It was not until January 1862, nearly four years after the apparitions, that the bishop delivered his verdict on Lourdes in a Pastoral letter, a verdict that silenced those hostile to Bernadette:
We adjudge that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, really appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11th, 1858, and subsequent days, eighteen times in all, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes: that this apparition possesses all the marks of truth, and that the faithful are justified in believing it certain. We humbly submit our judgement to the judgement of the Supreme Pontiff to whom is committed the Government of the whole Church.