The Apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes
From December 8, 2007 through December 8, 2008, the Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France to the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous. The first took place on February 11, 1858, and was followed by seventeen more through July 16, 1858. The official feast day of these apparitions is observed on February 11. In celebration of the apparitions, Pope Benedict visited Lourdes from September 13 to September 15, 2008.
On that cold day in February, young Bernadette was out gathering driftwood and other sticks for firewood with her sister and a friend. They left her behind and crossed a cold river, but she was reluctant to follow due to her constant poor health. Just as she was about to follow them, she heard a rustling noise, turned, and saw a vision of a beautiful young lady in a hollow of the Massabielle rock. During this first apparition, Bernadette fell to her knees and prayed the Rosary, the figure following along with beads she held in her hands. Once the five decades were said the figure smiled and disappeared. Upon her return to the grotto a few days later, Bernadette saw the figure again while saying the Rosary, though none of those who had accompanied her this time were able to see it. Some were convinced she had seen a soul from purgatory.
The third apparition took place on February 18, when the Lady asked Bernadette to come back every day for the next two weeks, which Bernadette agreed to do. The Lady also told Bernadette that she did not promise to make her happy in this life, but in the next. On Sunday February 21, after having seen the vision, Bernadette was questioned by the imperial agent who determined that she was sincere but delusional. The same day, the commissary of police questioned her as well, telling her to stay away from the grotto and that it was becoming a public disturbance. The following day she initially did not intend to return to the grotto, partially out of obedience to her mother, but felt herself being pulled there later in the day. There was no sighting that day, the 22nd, but she knew she had to keep her promise to the Lady, and continued to go each day.
On February 25, while being watched by the large crowd that had been growing over the past week, Bernadette crawled on her knees into the grotto, where she began to scratch at the ground. She had been told by the vision to drink and wash in a spring there, although there was initially only a small amount of muddy water. After digging and getting three separate scoops of water, each too muddy to drink, she was able to drink the fourth. Many jeered at her for this, because when she turned to face the crowd after drinking the water, her face was muddy and she was chewing grass that the Lady had told her to eat. People who had previously thought her a pious and blessed girl now began to think she might simply be crazy. By the end of the day, however, the spring there had reached the nearby Gave river, and within a matter of days it began to be the source of many miraculous events. The water still flows today, and continues to heal people of various ailments.
Bernadette saw the apparition each day of the fifteen days she had been told to come through March 4, with the exception of one Monday and one Friday. During one of sightings, the Lady told Bernadette to have the priests build a church at the site, but they did not listen right away because they didn't believe it was real, and wanted to see a miracle and to know who it was that was appearing. Each time Bernadette had asked the Lady her name, she just smiled but did not answer. After the end of the fifteen days, Bernadette did not know if she would see the Lady again, but continued visiting the grotto. On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, she felt compelled to go, and Mary appeared to her again. This time, Bernadette asked three times for the Lady's name, to which she finally responded in the local dialect Bernadette knew, “Que soy era Immaculado Conceptiou,” or “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary had only been declared four years before this, and Bernadette had never heard of it, but ran and told the priest what she had heard. This proved that it was Mary who had been appearing to Bernadette.
Mary once again appeared to Bernadette on April 7, during which there were reports that the flame of a candle Bernadette had brought with her burned her hand for several minutes – yet she had no marks or damages on her hand. The final apparition took place July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, when Bernadette was once again drawn to the spot. By this time the grotto had been blocked from the public and Bernadette had to look from the far side of the Gave river, yet when Mary appeared she looked no further away than she had all the other times.
The apparitions received pastoral approval by the Bishop in 1862 after a lengthy investigation, and in 1876, a church was consecrated upon the Massabielle rock, and less than a decade later construction began on another church when the first was not large enough for the multitudes of people who visited the grotto. This Basilica of the Rosary was consecrated in 1901. In the same year, Pope Leo XIII allowed a special office and Mass for the occasion, and in 1907 the observance of the feast was extended to the whole Church by Pope Pius X.
Today the site remains as popular as ever, being the most visited pilgrimage site and a favorite shrine dedicated to Our Lady. Visited by many especially those looking to be miraculously healed from an ailment or disease, the water at the grotto often helps those who drink from it or bathe in it.
This article is adapted from Butler's Lives of the Saints.