Theology of the heart- Life of the Saints

Saint Bernadette Soubirous
Visionary of Lourdes
Feast Day: April 16



St. Bernadette Soubirous was born on January 7th, 1844 in a small town of Lourdes, in the most beautiful French Pyrenées mountains. At baptism she was given the name Marie-Bernard, but since early childhood everyone called her “Bernadette.”

Her father, Francisco was an honest man, but not very capable in business. He worked as a miller for the Casterots, an affluent family. He lived with his family at the mill of Boly. Their mother, Luisa Casterot married at age 16 to assure her future, but things did not turn out well. When the clients came to grind their wheat, the young couple would provide a complete meal to them. They were able to do so in times of abundance, but crisis and tightness came to change all this.

Because of their debts, the Soubirous family had to leave the mill and find shelter in a cell of a prison, the property of Francisco’s cousin. The entire family of six lived in one room, the father, mother, and four children. The older ones were girls, Bernadette being the first, Toinette second (two and half years younger), then two boys, Jean-Marie and Justin. To obtain the scarce daily bread for the children, Francisco and Louise accepted all types of jobs.

When Bernadette was born the family still had resources. This is proven by the fact that the child was given to a wet nurse the first six months. The wet nurse’s name was Marie Avarant and her married name was Lagues. She lived in the countryside five miles from Lourdes. Marie Lagues breast-fed Bernadette for 15 months, from June 1844 to October 1845. According to the custom, both families stayed very united.

The economic difficulties of the Soubirous family gave opportunity for Marie to ask to care for Bernadette. This was an excuse so that Bernadette may help take care of the other children, but in reality Marie wanted her to tend the sheep. Bernadette became a contracted shepherdess without pay.

On her departure to Bartres she was promised that she will be able to be prepared for First Communion by the priest of the village. She was 14 years old and the only girl of this age in Lourdes who had not received First Communion. But seeing how well she worked, they obliged her to spend more time caring for the sheep, and this did not permit her to receive Catechism classes because she was out in the fields working. This hurt her heart very much.

Bernadette’s intelligence had been questioned. Many believe she was not very intelligent. It is true she learned with difficulty and she herself said she had “a bad head,” meaning little memory. Because she was not given the opportunity to study, Bernadette at 13 years of age did not know how to read or write. The teacher Jean Barbet, who once gave her Catechism class, said about her: “Bernadette has difficulties retaining the words in Catechism which she cannot study because she does not know how to read. However, she applies enormous effort to comprehend the meaning of the explanations. She is very attentive, most especially, she is very pious and modest.”

Even though the priest of Bartres, Abbe Arder, had entered a monastery shortly after Bernadette arrived, he was able to capture the excellence of her heart in the little contact he had with her. The priest had much faith in the apparitions of La Salette (1846), 11 years before, and compared Bernadette with the children of La Salette.
He said about Bernadette: “She seems to me like a flower surrounded in divine perfume. I assure you that on many occasions, when I have seen her, I have thought of the children of La Salette. Certainly, if the Blessed Virgin appeared to Maximino and Melania, she did so in order for them to become as simple and pious as she is.”

Neither ignorance nor poverty, not even the sickly aspect of Bernadette prevented the appreciation of her virtues of simplicity and piety.

The Priest on one occasion said: “Look at this small child. When the Blessed Virgin wants to appear on earth she chooses children like her.”

His words were prophetic, for in a few months the Blessed Virgin started to appear to Bernadette in the grotto of Massabielle, near Lourdes.

When Bernadette saw that her desire to receive Holy Communion would not be possible in Bartres, she asked Maria Lagues to allow her to go to Lourdes, insisting to her parents to allow her to return home.

She wanted to receive First Communion in 1858 and needed to start catechism classes immediately.

Her parents agreed and she returned to Lourdes on January 28th, 1858 only 14 days before the first apparition of the Virgin. The Blessed Mother appeared from February 11th, 1858 to July 16th of the same year.

Bernadette’s piety conquered the trials

Two virtues stood out in Bernadette: piety and modesty. To be pious it is not necessary to be intelligent.

Even after she became a religious, she herself said that she did not know how to pray and would remain long hours in prayer. Her prayer was not mechanical; she would speak to God and the Virgin just as we speak to a person face to face. It was a prayer from the heart: intense, honest and effective.

She loved prayer. She knew very well how to pray the Holy Rosary, which she always carried in her pocket. She had the Rosary in her hands when Our Lady appeared. Her first response in times of difficulties or trials was to take out the Rosary and start praying.

This small soul chosen by the Virgin had much to suffer both morally and physically until her death. But we should never forget that God guided this small child and she responded with humility, abandonment, faith and courage. Bernadette had virtues that were criticized by the people as “defects.” Because of this error of the people, the authenticity of the apparitions was doubted. This child of only 14 years old (she became 14 on Jan. 7th, 1858) had to be wise, firm, extraordinarily courageous, and how to make discernments and confront the people trying to dissuade her, among them priests, bishops, head of police, attorneys, etc.

To have an idea of the interior fortitude and capacity of judgment Bernadette had, we can see some statements she made during an interrogation to which she was submitted. After the Chief Prosecutor, Mr. Dutor, made Bernadette and her mother stand for a long time, he finally said to them : “There are chairs. You may sit down.”
Bernadette responded: “No. We can dirty them.”

On another occasion, when she was asked about the language that the Virgin spoke, Bernadette said:
“She spoke to me in dialect.” They responded to her: “The Virgin Mary couldn’t have spoken in dialect, because God and the Virgin don’t speak dialect.”
Bernadette responded: “How can we know and speak dialect if they don’t speak it? Do you think she spoke to me in French? Do I speak French?”

In the twelfth apparition, Bernadette gave the Virgin a rosary.
After the apparition, a priest asked her: “Now you also bless rosaries?”
Bernadette smiled and said: “I don’t wear a stole do I?”

Another person asked her: “Well Bernadette, now that the Virgin promised you will go to heaven, you don’t need to worry about your soul.”
Bernadette: “But, Father, I will only go to heaven if I behave correctly.”

Her interrogations were long hours, sometimes entire days; they tried by all means to deceive her so she would contradict her declarations. But she maintained herself alert, on guard, knowing they were not looking for the truth, but wanted to prove she invented everything.

Bernadette frequently had to confront the Pastor of Lourdes, Abbe Peyramale, who had a reputation of having a bad temper. In all the occasions that our saint went to visit him, even fearful, she always controlled this natural tendency. Her will to accomplish the mission Our Lady gave her was more powerful than the bad temper of the priest. We see how Bernadette fulfilled the desires of the Virgin even though she had obstacles and personal weaknesses.

On March 25th, 1858, the Virgin revealed her identity, giving Bernadette the proof her pastor insisted upon. The words of the Blessed Virgin, “I’m the Immaculate Conception,” brought down once and for all the wall unbelief in the pastor’s heart, who became at this moment one of the greatest defenders and supporters of the apparitions, using his same temper to defend the girl against attackers.

The Lourdes apparitions were different from other apparitions like La Salette, Pointman, Fatima, Knock, Beuraing. With the exception of the apparition of the miraculous medal, Bernadette was the only visionary. She did not have another person to corroborate and support her testimony. Her only fountain of strength was the Blessed Virgin which was sufficient for her.

A time was to come when her gifts, interior fortitude, her diligence in answering questions, all of which she used to defend the apparitions of the Virgin, were going to be used against her. Those who supported her knew and understood her great virtues, but according to those who criticized her these virtues were great defects. Her interior fortitude was called stubbornness; her diligence in responding was insolence. Once, in the Convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers, when she was accused of having self love, she drew a circle and put a mark with her finger in the center of the circle and said: “Whoever doesn’t have self love put your finger here” (indicating the marked center).

For Bernadette the apparitions were an unmerited blessing, this gift by itself did not make her a saint. It was a gift for the world, but at the same time, because of her admirable attitude she received graces leading her to holiness. It is important to clarify that St. Bernadette did not become a saint because she saw the Virgin Mary, but because she climbed the ladder of holiness through enormous trials and crosses. To be a saint it is not necessary to have great mystical experiences. It is necessary and sufficient to have two things: HUMILITY AND LOVE. It is in ardent prayer and a life of virtue that love is expressed in itself.

Bernadette after the apparitions

The humble young lady chosen for such a great mission remained as she was before the apparitions. In other words the Virgin conserved her simple, humble and modest. She did not like the uproar and popularity.

She seemed like any ordinary girl, except in her virtues, innocence, candor and honesty in works. She piously received her First Holy Communion that same year on June 3, 1858, the Feast of Corpus Christi.

God continued visiting her, not with brilliant apparitions, but through the bitter trial of sufferings: of incomprehension, mockery and ridicule, she was ill most of the time, she withstood all types of pain, but she maintained herself recollected with patience. She suffered from chronic asthma, tuberculosis, vomiting blood, aneurism, gastritis, tumor in the knee, cavities in the bones, and abscesses in the ear leading to deafness. Shortly before death she slightly regained hearing.

The Virgin had said to Bernadette: “I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the next.” These words of the Virgin were fulfilled fully in our saint. She suffered much during her life until her death at the age of 35. Bernadette’s health was very delicate; she was often in bed with high fevers and experienced many critical days with painful attacks of asthma.

Many found a cure in the fountain of Lourdes, but not Bernadette. One day she was asked: “Why don’t you drink from the water of the fountain? This water has cured others, why not you?” This insidious question could have become a temptation for Bernadette, but she was not disturbed. Bernadette responded:

“The Blessed Virgin perhaps desires for me to suffer. I need it.”
“Why you more than others?”
“The good God knows.”
“Will you return to the grotto again?”
“When the Pastor permits it.”
“Why doesn’t he permit it all the time?”
“Because all the people follow me.”
“You have gone before even though it was prohibited.”
“This was because I was pressured.”
“The Virgin said you will be happy in another world; therefore are you sure you are going to heaven?”
“O no, this is only if I do what is good.”
“Didn’t she tell you what to do to go to heaven?”
“You know it very well; it is not necessary for me to repeat it.”

Last years in Lourdes

Bernadette was unable to receive in her home the care she needed for her fragile health and the great numbers of curious visitors made her very tired. Seeing this need, Abbe Peyramal asked the Superior of the Lourdes Hospice to receive the child. The priest said: “The child should be with you because you can give her the care she needs in all aspects.”

In 1860, the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, who served in the hospital and the school, offered her help. Since that day she stayed under their roof with her delicate health but with orders to never attract attention to herself from anyone. Even when her parents moved from the jail to the mill, the sisters still gave her permission to stay with them. Her mother cried when she left, but she knew this was best for her daughter.

In the hospice Bernadette was assigned to the care of Sister Elizabeth who was to teach her to read and write. Bernadette was 16 years old, it was July of 1860. The superior told Sister Elizabeth: “It is said she is not too intelligent. See if there is a possibility to do something with her.”

Referring to Bernadette Sister Elizabeth said: “I found in her a vivid intelligence, perfect innocence and an exquisite heart.” She ended up reporting to the Mother Superior the following: “My dear Mother, you have been mislead. Bernadette is very intelligent and retains very well the doctrine given.”

Without being brilliant, Bernadette acquired a lot of knowledge. During her time in the hospice, she still acted like someone her age. She was honorable, sincere, pious and playful, very vivid, enjoyed laughter, saying jokes and playing games. Many times she was given the task of caring for the younger children, as customary in elementary schools. Bernadette showed herself to be as young and playful as the youngest girl.

One of the children said: “Bernadette was very simple. When we asked her to take care of us, she did so in such a way that she seemed like another child playing with us, not letting us be reminded of her miraculous adventure. Raised with the thought that our friend saw the Virgin Mary, we consider her very natural as a child of today who has seen the president of the Republic.”

Bernadette was completely natural in her daily behavior, but she was very serious in her Christian life.

During her growing years Bernadette had, like all young ladies, her moments of vanity, wanting to look good. But all these vanities passed by her rapidly without leaving a trace in her heart. Sister Victorina said: “The fever passed rapidly and didn’t harm her profound piety.”

The community also counted on Bernadette’s prayers. One day Mother Alejandrina suffered a sprain and the doctor recommended that she rest. However, she was very active and asked Bernadette to ask the Virgin to cure her. Bernadette immediately went to pray before the statue of the Virgin in the chapel. She prayed with all her heart. The following day the doctor found Mother Alejandrina occupied in her work, as if nothing had happened.

Her religious vocation

The Blessed Virgin Mary gave her a special grace by calling her to religious life. It seemed Bernadette never seriously considered marriage. In 1863 at the age of 19 or 20, her religious vocation was clearly presented to her. She thought of being a Carmelite, but it was not difficult for her to comprehend that her health was too delicate to confront the rigors of the Carmel.

Bishop Forcade of Nevers who guided Bernadette had in his diocese the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity of Hospice and the School of Lourdes. He asked Bernadette what her future intentions were and she responded:

“Dear Bishop, all I ask is to stay in this house as a servant.”
“But my child, haven’t you thought of becoming a religious like the sisters you are so close to?”
“O Bishop, I have never believed this was possible for an ignorant and poor child like me. You know very well that I’m poor and don’t have the necessary dowry.”
“Poverty should not detain you. An exception to the rule can be made and a young lady can be received without a dowry if she shows clear indications of a vocation.”
“Bishop, your words have touched me profoundly, I promise I will think about it.”
Bernadette knew a decision like this should not be done without consideration and reflection.
The Bishop was very complacent with her prudence and recommended her to take her time and to make a decision with complete liberty and without haste.
On August 1864, Bernadette said to the Mother Superior of the Hospice:
“My dear Mother, I have prayed much to know if I’m called to religious life. I believe the answer is yes. I would like to enter the congregation if I’m accepted. Permit me to write to the Bishop.”

In response, the Superior embraced Bernadette with tears of joy. After her decision, she experienced attacks of illnesses. The need to try several medicines to cure her delayed her entrance. In 1866 she wrote: “I’m more convinced than ever to leave the world. Now I have definitely decided and hope to leave it soon.”

Finally the great day came in July of 1866; she was 22 years old. She visited her beloved grotto for the last time with a farewell from the heart. “See this grotto? It was my heaven on earth.” The following day she said good-bye to her family and on July 4th, 1866, Bernadette left her birth place and never returned. Before departing she said a prayer inspired from the Magnificat in thanksgiving for the poverty of her servant. Directed to Mary she said: “Yes, dear Mother, you have come down to the earth to appear to a weak child. You, Queen of heaven and earth, have chosen what was the most humble according to the world.”

The religious, the saint

She departed to start her novitiate. She arrived at the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers on July 7th, 1866 in the evening. On Sunday, Bernadette had a nostalgic attack that lead her to cry all day. She was encouraged by the sisters telling her that this was a good sign because her religious life should start with sacrifice. In the history of the Mother house one can read: “Bernadette is in reality all we have heard of her, humble in a supernatural way; simple and modest even though she has been exposed to things that would elevate her mind. She smiles and is sweet and happy, even though her illness is eating her up. This is the seal of holiness, suffering united with celestial joy.”

Sister Marie Bernard

Neither the Superior Mother Josefina Imbert nor the novice mistress Mother Maria Teresa Vausou understood the treasure God had given them. They did admit that the Virgin appeared to Bernadette, but they saw her so “ordinary” that they had difficulty in seeing her holiness. Apparently their idea of holiness was different from the Church’s.

In the diocesan process of Beatification, Rev. P. Peach, professor of dogmatic theology in the seminary of Moulins, said to his students: “The testimony was this: Bernadette was very ordinary. But when asked if she was faithful to the rules, if she needed to be corrected for disobedience or in reference to the vows of poverty, chastity, all the sisters agreed and said: O no, none of this.”

Why did the superiors treat her poorly? We can only respond that it was part of Divine Providence for the sanctification of Bernadette. Particularly the Novice Mistress, Mother Maria Teresa Vauzou, caused much spiritual suffering for Bernadette during the 13 years she lived in the convent. Mother Maria Teresa was known for her observant eye and her psychological penetration; but she was never capable of capturing this pure soul’s intimate union with God and total abandonment to the desires of God’s Divine Will that formed her interior life. Bernadette never studied forms of prayer, but spent hours praying, reciting her rosary with great devotion. She lived in perpetual union with the Virgin Mary and with Jesus through Her.

Bernadette was completely immersed in God

Upon receiving her postulant habit, her religious name was given; it was her same baptismal name- Sister Marie Bernard.

Anticipated profession

Three weeks after receiving the habit, Bernadette became gravely ill with a new attack of tuberculosis and had to be admitted to the infirmary. This crisis of asthmatic suffocation and of coughing was so serious that the doctor thought she would die soon.

Mother Superior called the Bishop and he administered the Extreme Unction, but she was unable to receive the Viaticum because of her constant coughing and vomiting of blood. Thinking Bernadette was to die soon, Mother Superior gave her the consolation of permitting her to pronounce her vows. She talked to the Bishop and the community approved.

Knowing what she was about to do, Bernadette responded with a thankful smile. Bishop Forcade presided over the ceremony. Bernadette gave her consent by signs because she was not able to speak. She was given the profession veil. All believed she was dying but Bernadette always put her health in the hands of Mary.

The new religious fell asleep and woke up the next morning very happy, declaring to her Superior: “My Reverend Mother, you allowed me to do my religious profession, thinking I was going to die. Well look, I’m not going to die.”

The Mother Superior responded: “You silly girl, you knew you were not going to die and did not tell us. In this case, if you have not died by tomorrow morning I will take your veil away.”

Sister Marie Bernard simply responded with admirable heroic submission: “As you wish, Reverend Mother.” Even though this caused her great pain she knew how to accept this chalice that the Lord sent her.

Her mother died on December 8th, 1866 at the age of 45 years. This was one of the greatest sufferings that Bernadette experienced. In her pain she said to the Lord: “My God, you have willed this! I accept the chalice you have given me. May your Name be blessed.”

During her novitiate Bernadette was treated harshly and perhaps with more cruelty than the rest of the novices. Her companions would say: “It is not good to be Bernadette.” But she accepted all and saw the hand of God in everything.

Bernadette professed on October 30th, 1867 with the name of Sister Marie Bernard. She was 23 years old. The happiness of this moment, however, was stained by cruel humiliation. When time came to distribute the newly professed sisters their work, Mother Superior responded to the Bishop’s question: “What about Sister Marie Bernard?” “O Bishop, we do not know what to do. She is good for nothing. If you desire, Bishop, we can try to use her as a helper in the infirmary.” The Bishop agreed. Sister Marie Bernard received the pain of this humiliation in her heart without any complaints or tears, she simply accepted the chalice.

The next chalice she was to drink was the death of her father in 1871, six years after the death of her mother. She did not get a chance to him after leaving Lourdes.
A sister found her crying in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and when the sister was going to console her she said:“My sister, always have great devotion to the agony of our Savior. Saturday in the afternoon I prayed to Jesus in agony for all those who would die at this moment, and it was precisely the moment my father entered eternity. What a consolation it is for me to have helped him.”

She had to go through many tribulations; big and small humiliations bombarded her. She said: “When my emotions are too strong, I remember the words of Our Lord: ‘It is I, don’t be afraid.’ I immediately appreciate and thank Our Lord for this grace of rejections and humiliations from my Superiors and sisters. It is the love of this Good Master who would remove the roots from this tree of pride. The more little I become, the more I grow in the Heart of Jesus.”

Bernadette was given a great gift in the beginning of 1874. She was an assistant in the infirmary, a job she loved very much, but her strength was diminishing.
After a bronchitis attack she had in the fall of 1873, for which she was hospitalized, it was determined she was too weak to continue helping in the infirmary and was given the work that required the least physical effort. It was at the same time the most important and the one which she loved more than being a helper in the infirmary.

Later she was named assistant sacristan. Her new position gave her the opportunity to spend more time in the chapel, close to the Blessed Sacrament. She was almost without supervision, something which permitted her to talk to the Lord in the Tabernacle without anyone thinking she was strange. She managed all the sacred vessels with great reverence. The corporal, purificators and albs were treated conscious that Jesus Incarnate touched them during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That is why she did not permit anyone to help her in this ministry. This gift, however, did not last too long because her health deteriorated. She became disabled from 1877 until her death. She was provided with all possible help and she obeyed all doctors orders.

She professed Perpetual Vows on September 22nd, 1878, during a period when she was feeling better. Her good health, however, did not last long. The following December 11th, she returned to the infirmary to never leave it. Her last months were very difficult. She went through the dark night of the soul. She lost her confidence, her peace of heart and the certitude of heaven. She was tempted with discouragement and desperation, thinking she was not worthy of salvation. This was her most bitter chalice and the greatest suffering.

She suffered very much physically. Being in bed created wounds all over her back. Her tuberculosis ridden leg burst. She developed abbesses in her ears, making her completely deaf for some time. If it were not for the evidence of her symptoms no one would suspect she was so sick. Her serene and joyful attitude did not manifest the profound suffering she was going through. Bernadette never lost her fortitude and acceptance.

To a sister who said she was going to pray to the Lord so He would console Bernadette, the latter responded: “No, no, no consolation, only strength and patience.”
Bernadette experienced her passion during Holy Week of 1879. On April 16th, 1879 she asked the religious to pray the rosary with her while she followed with fervor. At the end of the Hail Mary, she smiled as if she had encountered again the Virgin in the Grotto. Then she died at 3:15 PM. Her last words were the conclusion of the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners...sinners...”

Her body was placed in the small Gothic Chapel situated in the center of the convent’s garden which was dedicated to St. Joseph. On September 22, 1909, 30 years after her death, her body was removed from this same chapel to be examined for the Diocesan Beatification process. The body was found in a perfectly preserved state. Her skin was hard, but intact and her color remained. A second examination occurred on April 18th, 1925, just before her beatification on June 12, 1925.

Bernadette was canonized on December 8th, 1933. We celebrate her feast day on the day she went to the Father’s house: April 16th.

Lourdes has become the most visited Marian Shrine of Europe and the second in the world after the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. An infinite number of sick people have visited Lourdes and have been healed in the miraculous waters, but the greatest gift is still the amount of conversions of the heart.

Today, Saint Bernadette’s body can still be seen incorrupt in the Chapel of Nevers in the glass casket where she appears to be asleep. Her sweetness and peace touch all our hearts.

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