The Subsequent History of Bernadette Soubirous
by Richard F. Clarke, S.J., 1888
July 28, 1858, the Bishop of Tarbes issued a pastoral (mandement) in which he said that ecclesiastical authority was going to occupy itself with the Grotto at Lourdes, and that a commission was charged to make an official inquiry. The commission had for its object to furnish an answer to the following questions:
1. Were the cures wrought by means of the waters of Lourdes natural or supernatural?
2. Were Bernadette’s visions real? and were they natural or supernatural?
3. Did the spring exist previously to the visions?
On the 17th of November, a Sub-commission of five persons came to Lourdes to make personal inquiries on the spot. They added to their number Dr. Vergez, a physician of Montpellier, of long experience and high reputation as a man of science. The resident doctor at Lourdes, Dr. Dojous, was of course in constant communication with the Commission; as he had watched Bernadette during her ecstasies, and had examined all the alleged cures, his evidence was invaluable.
When the Commission was authorized by the Bishop, he had hoped that the civil authorities would leave the matter in his hands. But the Prefect had by this time made up his mind that the whole business was a mere imposture, or superstition, and continued to persecute Bernadette and watch the pilgrims as much as ever. Happily, however, a higher authority interfered. The Emperor heard the story, and at once sent word (October, 1858) that all opposition was to cease. Thenceforward barriers, boarding, police interference, summonses to trespassers, were all at an end. Bernadette, her parents, and the pilgrims, were left in peace.
The Commission continued its labors for nearly three years. During the first two years Bernadette continued to go to the parish school, and at the end of that time (she was then sixteen years old) was received as a boarder into the Convent of the Sisters of Nevers. It is needless to say that she had innumerable visitors. What was the general impression she made upon them?
The Heavenly Visitation she had enjoyed had not changed her to outward appearance She was still rather below the average in intelligence, very wanting in imagination, and not at all expansive. She had no power to describe what she saw or to interest visitors. “When she told her story she did so with wonderful conciseness and almost coldness. People sometimes said to her, “How can you talk so coldly of such wonderful things?” Yet she was gentle, good, simple, innocent, and some visitors were charmed with her. If she was questioned, there was something in her answers that showed how sure she was of her facts. Questions, instead of embarrassing her, seemed to make her more at her ease. But it was when any one attempted to argue the point with her, and raised all kinds of objections to what she said, that Bernadette showed to the best advantage. That passionless, matter-of-fact child seemed to be no longer the same person when she had to defend the truth of her story, or when the honor of Our Lady of Lourdes seemed to her to be at stake. Contradiction roused her: she always had plenty to answer, and the readiness and justice of her replies were most remarkable. In spite of her mediocre intelligence, she often astonished and put to silence clever men who cross-questioned her. They “could not resist the spirit and the wisdom with which she spoke.”
There were other features in her conduct that were very much in her favor. Never would she take any sort of gift for herself or for any of her family. They were miserably poor, and visitors offered them money without end, but it was invariably refused. Indeed, it is not unlikely that this prohibition to receive anything was one of the commands imposed upon her by Our Lady.
Her early simplicity, too, was in no way affected by the crowds who sought her. If she had not been under the special guidance of God, she could not have failed to have her head turned by the notice taken of her and the flattery that was poured into her ear. People called her a saint; asked her to put her hand on pious objects, and so make relics of them; but she always answered, “Why, I can’t bless anything.” It all made no impression upon her, and she never seemed to take to herself any of the compliments paid her, but all went to Our Lady, who had regarded the humility of her handmaiden.
Another curious fact told very much in her favor, and was strong evidence of the reality of her visions. Contact with her seemed to kindle devotion, and had a wonderful power to strengthen in her visitors their faith in the supernatural. Men of the world who listened to her story could not help believing, often in spite of themselves. “I don’t know about the miracles,” said a Protestant magistrate who visited Lourdes; ” it is that child who astonishes me and goes to my heart. I am sure there must be something in her story.” In fact, Bernadette, the ignorant, matter-of-fact, rather dull, undemonstrative Bernadette, exercised a regular apostolate in the impulse she gave to devotion to Our Lady and to belief in the supernatural.
We must hasten on. The Episcopal Commission did its work most thoroughly, and at length made its formal report to the Bishop. He took some months to consider it, but at length, on January 18, 1862, was published the Pastoral of the Bishop of Tarbes respecting the apparition at Lourdes. We regret that our space does not permit us to give it in full. Enough to say that it discusses, with admirable clearness and good sense, apparitions, miracles, pilgrims, Bernadette, and sets forward the following as the result of the official investigation made by the Commission:
“We give sentence (nous jugeons) that Mary Immaculate, Mother of God, has really appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on February 11, 1858, and the following days, to the number of eighteen times, in the Grotto of Massabielle, near the town of Lourdes; that this apparition carries with it all the marks of truth, and that the faithful have good ground (sontfondes) for believing it certain.”
We left Bernadette, at the age of sixteen, confided to the care of the Sisters of Nevers. In their convent she remained as a boarder till she was twenty-two. She was allowed to receive visitors in the parlor there. Her life was, during a greater part of the year, nothing but a series of receptions. She was at the beck and call of anyone who came to see her. On feast-days it was with some difficulty that she got time for her meals. She did not like the publicity that was forced upon her, and got away as soon as she could. She had to give up all her free time; the continual talking was painful to her. She had poor health and a weak chest. Yet she knew that she was doing God’s will. She never complained, she never refused to see those who asked for her. The only sign of her dislike for her continual flow of visitors was a slight shrug of the shoulders when a new visitor was unexpectedly announced. But her time and strength were well spent; she was accomplishing her mission; she had become the apostle of Mary Immaculate.
But the time was drawing near when Our Lord was calling her to a higher life. In 1863, Mgr. Forbade, Bishop of Nevers, to whose jurisdiction the Sisters of Nevers were subject, came to Lourdes and asked to see Bernadette. She was in the kitchen, scraping carrots for the dinner of the community, sitting on a stool in the corner of the fire-place. The Bishop sent for her after dinner, and after talking a little about the apparitions, asked her what she was going to do with herself.
“Nothing,” was her answer.
“My dear child, you must do something in the world.”
“Why, lam with these good Sisters, and I’m quite content.”
“I have no doubt you are, but you can’t remain here always. They only took you for a time, out of charity.”
“Why can’t I stay here always?”
“Because you are not a Sister and not a servant.”
“I don’t think I should do for a Sister. I have no dowry, and I am no good. I know nothing, and am good for nothing.”
“You do not appreciate your talents. I saw this morning that you are good for something.”
“Good for what? ”
“Why, for scraping carrots!” answered the Bishop, seriously.
Bernadette burst out laughing. “That isn’t very difficult!”
“Never mind; if God gives you a vocation, the Sisters will find work for you, and in the novitiate will teach you to do a number of things of which you are ignorant at present.
“Well, I’ll think about it.”
A year later Bernadette asked to be admitted to the novitiate. Her entrance was put off for two years on account of the miserable state of her health. She had always been a sufferer, her incurable maladies preyed without ceasing on her feeble frame, and from time to time there supervened crises which brought her to the door of death. But in July, 1866, it was decided not to keep her waiting any longer, and on the 8th she was admitted into the novitiate.
The main feature of her novitiate was her total silence respecting the apparitions of Lourdes among her fellow-novices. They had been told not to speak to her on the subject, and though many of them would fain have questioned her, yet they faithfully obeyed the injunction given them. Bernadette herself never broached the subject, and it was only when one of her Superiors spoke to her about it, or some privileged visitor, that anyone could have discovered that this ordinary sort of novice, about whom there was nothing remarkable except her constant sickness, was one who had received from Heaven favors beyond compare.
Bernadette was regular and edifying, but just like the rest as far as externals went. No ecstasies, no wonderful gift of prayer, no outward marks of extraordinary piety. Several times the Bishop of Nevers asked her, “Tell me, Bernadette, have you seen Our Lady again since the last of those visions by the rock of Massabielle, or have you received any other extraordinary graces?”–” No,” was her invariable answer, “up to now I am just the same as anybody else.”–“Yet,” adds the Bishop, ” she was not just the same as anybody else. The most marked feature in her was her desire to live unknown and to be counted as a nobody. This is rare enough, even among souls that tend to perfection. No one put into practice better than Bernadette that beautiful precept of the Imitation, Love to be unknown and esteemed of no account.” This is high praise from the mouth of the Prelate who was the Superior of the whole community. What impostor, nay, what hysterical or imaginative enthusiast, would have been willing thus to sink into obscurity and oblivion? It shows a strange ignorance of human nature to believe that one who was laboring under the delusions of an overwrought fancy would consent to be snuffed out, nay, would desire above all things to disappear, and never be remembered more by the world that had once run after her as a saint.
We have said that the apparitions left Bernadette just the same as she had been before. But this is scarcely true. In the novitiate she showed far more intelligence than one would have gathered from her childish years. The change may have arisen from her contact with so many visitors, and we do not pretend that it was anything beyond a mere natural development. But there was also in her face, from time to time, a beauty of expression, an indescribable brightness, which those who associated with her fancied she had gained from having gazed on the unapproachable beauty of the Queen of Heaven.
In October, 1866, Sister Marie Bernard, for such was Bernadette’s name in religion, had one of those asthmatic crises that brought her near to death’s door. But she recovered from it, and a year later was professed. On this occasion it is the custom of the Sisters to assign some special employment to each of those professed. What was to be assigned to poor Bernadette? When she came before the Bishop on the day of profession, the Superior, in order to test her humility, rose in the presence of all and said publicly, that really they did not know what was to be done with Sister Marie Bernard, as she was good for nothing. The Bishop called her, and made her kneel before him.
“Is it true,” he asked Sister Marie Bernard, “that you are of no use in the community?”
“Reverend mother is perfectly right; it is quite true.”
“But, my poor child, what are we to do with you, and of what good is it to admit you into the Congregation?”
“That is just what I told you at Lourdes, my Lord, and you answered that this would not make any difference.”
The Bishop did not expect such an answer as this, and the Superior came to the rescue.
“If you like, Monseigneur, we can keep her out of charity and employ her in the infirmary. As she is almost always sick, it will be just the place for her. She can begin by keeping it clean, and if we are able to teach her, perhaps she will be able to make up the cough-mixtures later on.”
Certainly this speech was the reverse of flattering to poor Bernadette. What could have been more humbling, more calculated to wound self-love? What greater proof of the reality of the poor girl’s vision of Our Lady, than that, after all the wondrous favors she had received, after all the flattery heaped upon her, the honor shown her, the presents offered her, the homage received by Her from the most noble and the most distinguished personages, she, nevertheless, accepted with joy the reputation of being a useless burden on a small community, to be employed in a post sufficiently humble in itself and imposed upon her in terms that made it more humble still. Here was a test that pride could never have stood; here was the true spirit of her who said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word.”
To clean an infirmary is not only an humble but a very disagreeable employment. Yet she entered upon it without making the least objection, never complained, and did her best as long as she kept it. After some years she was, by the doctor’s orders, transferred to the sacristy to be under-sacristan, and this post she retained until her death.
For twelve years after her profession she continued to serve her Sisters in these lowly offices. All the time she frequently suffered the most agonizing pains, and sometimes the crises of pain were almost unbearable. She was indeed a victim of expiation for sin. She had the privilege of being one of those who fill up what is wanting in the Sufferings of Christ, who share the Dolours of the Queen of Sorrows. Bernadette was not perfect, and sometimes the suffering forced from her, in spite of herself, an expression of impatience and ill-temper. But it was only on the surface, and in the depths of her soul she remained none the less submissive and resigned, full of joy and gratitude to God. When the crisis was over, the impatient word gave her an occasion of humbling herself before the whole community, of which she was always eager to avail herself. So passed her life from 1866 to 1878. On the 12th of December she had to appear before the representatives of the Bishops of Nancy and Tarbes, and renew again the depositions she had made, twenty years before, respecting the apparitions at the Grotto. She told her story with the same simplicity as ever, and answered the questions put to her with the same satisfactory clearness and precision.
Bernadette’s work was now nearly done–her multiplied ailments had become worse and worse. The asthma, which had been the cross of her life, recurred with crises more frequent and more violent than ever. Her chest became more and more feeble; a large tumor had formed on her knee, and her bones were gradually rotting away with caries, while wounds were appearing over her whole body. This had been her condition more or less for years, and now the end was not far off. On St. Joseph’s feast the Chaplain of the Convent asked her what favor she had asked of the Saint, and she at once replied: ” The grace of a good death.” A week later she was so much worse that she received Viaticum. But she partially recovered, and in the brief respites from suffering that she enjoyed from time to time she had all the light-heartedness of a child. She was full of little jokes and bits of fun. But these intervals were but short, and her normal state during the last few weeks of her life was one of intense and agonizing pain. She was, moreover, almost suffocated by phlegm, and the cough that tore her chest did not relieve her. One day the Chaplain said: “Courage, Sister! remember Mary’s promise: joy, recompense, happiness, at the end of all this.”–“Yes,” said poor Bernadette, “but the end is a long time coming.” A few minutes afterwards one of the Sisters, seeing how terrible her suffering was, said: “I wonder, Sister, you don’t ask to be cured.”–” No,” she answered, “I am not going to. I’m not going to ask for that; our Lord would come and say: ‘ Look at that little nun! she is not willing to suffer anything for Me, Who have suffered so much for her!'”
During Holy Week her sufferings redoubled. Easter came and still no relief. Horrible temptations assailed her, but the invocation of the Holy Names chased the evil one away. On Tuesday she cried out, in her agony, to one of the Sisters: “Sister, I’m so afraid! I have received so many graces and I fear I have made so little use of them.” But soon after this she became quite calm, and though her bodily sufferings continued to the last, she had peace and quiet in her soul. One of her companions said to her: “I am going to ask Our Lady to give you some consolation.”–“No,” she answered, ” not consolation, but strength and patience.”
A short time before her death she made an attempt to rise, fixed her eyes intently as if on some unseen object, and over her face there crept an expression of surprise and sweet emotion which reminded the bystanders of the change that came over her as she knelt in ecstasy by the waters of the Gave. “My God!” she cried, “I love Thee with my whole heart, my whole soul, and my whole strength! ”
One of the Sisters said to her, “Our Lady, whom you have loved and served all your life long, will come and meet you at the moment of your death, and will escort you to Paradise.”–“Yes,” said the dying girl, in a tone of confidence and love, “I hope so.”
Then, a few moments after, “God of mercy, Jesus Crucified, have pity on me! . . . Mary Immaculate, do not forsake your child! “Then she begged pardon of one of the Sisters for all the trouble she had given her, took her crucifix, and kissed most lovingly the five Sacred Wounds of Jesus; asked for something to drink, took the cup in her hands, made a large sign of the Cross after the fashion that Our Lady had taught her at the rock of Massabielle, drank a few drops, and peacefully composed herself to die. Those by her bedside went on saying some prayers for her. Twice she repeated after them faintly the second half of the Hail Mary, and the third time, after uttering the words “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” she found herself unable to pronounce the rest, raised her eyes to Heaven, bowed her head in death, and so went to behold forever, before the Throne of God, the majesty of Mary Immaculate,
Brief and very imperfect is the above sketch of Bernadette Soubirous. I have not attempted to write her Life; my object has been to bring out such details as show her character, attainments, and disposition. My study of her life has deepened and strengthened in me–I will not say my conviction of the reality of Bernadette’s visions, for that needed no strengthening–but my appreciation of the great value of the independent evidence in their favor that her life affords. If there had been no miracles at Lourdes to establish incontestably the presence of a supernatural power working there–if the bubbling spring had not forced its way upwards through the earth in such unexpected fashion under the hand of Bernadette–if the water had not restored sight to the blind and life to the dying–still the story of Bernadette’s life proves her incontestably to have been neither impostor nor enthusiast. The former hypothesis is out of the question; the latter is utterly at variance with her matter-of-fact, unimaginative, unimpressionable character; it is in contradiction with the whole tenor of her life; it is utterly incompetent to account for the facts of the case. If Bernadette had been a mere visionary, she would never have drawn down crowds to watch her as she knelt in prayer; men of the world would not have been forced by her appearance and demeanor to believe, in spite of previous prejudices and a determination not to be convinced; she would not have stood the test of questioning and cross-questioning; she would not have carried the day against every sort of opposition and contradiction; she would not have been willing to retire out of sight and be utterly unknown and obscure; she would not have courted contempt and humiliation; she would not have joyfully accepted the most humble of all possible offices in a small religious community; she would not have lived so holy a life or died so holy a death.
Above all, time, that tries all things, proves day by day more certainly the truth of her story. No fancied visions ever stood the test of time. No mere hallucinations of a pious enthusiast have ever prevailed in the long run against the force of criticism and careful investigation; whereas the severest critics are compelled to confess themselves baffled before the narrative of Lourdes; and honest investigation bears its joyful testimony to the presence of the power of God working His marvels through the poor peasant girl of Lourdes. Infirma mundi elegit Deus. God loves to choose the weak things of this world, and poor weak Bernadette has confounded and will confound, as long as the world lasts, all the wisdom of the philosopher, all the sneers of the skeptic, all the attempts of the unbeliever to set aside or explain away the miracles wrought through her at Lourdes.
1. In most statues of Our Lady of Lourdes these roses are incorrectly represented as small in size, and resting almost on the instep, whereas in point of fact they were very large, and covered the front of the foot.
2. The words actually spoken were, in the patois of the country. “Soy l’Immaculada Conceptioun.” (Je suis l’Immaculee Conception.
3. Cant. v. 1.