It is difficult writing about Lourdes.
Not because millions of Catholics, believing the Virgin Mary appeared to a 14 year old girl in 1854, visit the shrine each year. Nor because of they believe the spring’s healing waters have produced incontestable miraculous cures – some 350,000 pilgrims bathe there annually.
It is difficult because the official version of the story, and the public’s perception of Lourdes (often without much foundation other than hearsay), is so pervasive it is hard to sift out the probable truth without appearing like you have an axe to grind.
The story, for those that don’t know it, is a beautiful lady appeared in a grotto on 18 occasions to a simple peasant girl called Bernadette outside the town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees. When she told Bernadette to dig in the grotto, a spring with healing properties appeared.
In the past 150 years around 200 million pilgrims have flocked to Lourdes. There have been 69 recognised miracle cures in all and only 4 since 1978. The last in 2013 was a person who suffered from hypertension. A famous sceptic pointed out not one has involved something like a missing eye or limb growing back.
On the 11 February 1858, while out collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, Bernadette Soubirous a 14-year-old miller’s daughter claimed she saw ‘a white figure – a thing in the shape of a child’ in a niche above a shallow cave called the Grotto of Pigs. A place used as an animal shelter and a rubbish dump.
Bernadette’s story of the initial vision changed over time. The ‘white thing in the shape of a child’ became a beautiful lady dressed in shining white robes with a blue girdle around the waist, holding a rosary made of gold and pearls, and with a golden rose on each foot .
Despite her companions saying they saw nothing, her sister told her mother and Bernadette was forbidden to go to the rubbish dump cave again. Yet a few days later (14 February) her mother relented. Bernadette took a bottle of holy water and her rosary beads. When the white thing appeared, she threw holy water over it to check it was not a demon.
During the 3rd appearance on 18 Feb the figure asked Bernadette to visit the grotto for 15 days, adding she would not ‘promise to make her happy in this world, but in the next’. The following day Bernadette was accompanied by her mother, 2 aunts and 5 others. The girl brought a lit candle for protection against dark forces.
Each day the number of townsfolk accompanying her grew. Opinion was divided but they generally believed the figure was the Virgin Mary. For the 5th appearance there were 30 in attendance, for the 6th around 100. Around 150 attended the 7th appearance on 23 Feb including town officials. Bernadette said the ‘beautiful-lady’ (as she was now described) taught her a prayer and told her a secret. But she would not reveal what they were, even in confession.
250 people came to the 8th appearance where the lady told Bernadette to kiss the ground. In the 9th she told Bernadette to eat grass and drink from a muddy puddle, which Bernadette found in the cave.
According to the official version, the very next day a spring gushed forth from the puddle – the source of Lourdes healing waters. That day the lady did not attend, but it is claimed the people who came with Bernadette helped clean the spring of obstructing debris until it ran clear. According to contemporary reports there was always an occasional spring there.
About 800 people attended the lady’s 10th appearance, over 1,000 for the 11th on the next day, and 1,500 for the 12th when the first miracle happened. It is claimed a woman with a paralysed arm was cured. In actual fact she had injured two fingers of her hand in a fall.
During the 13th appearance on 2 March, the lady instructed Bernadette to tell the priests to hold a procession and build a chapel. The priests demanded to know the lady’s name but she would not reveal it.
The phenomenon was now attracting crowds of around 9,000. The lady repeated her request for a fortnight as the priests procrastinated. Bernadette claimed during this time the lady revealed 3 more secrets, which like the others she took to her grave. On her 16th appearance (25 March), she told Bernadette to tell the priests she was the Immaculate Conception.
Much is made of an ignorant girl knowing a new church dogma, declared only 4 years earlier by Pope Pius. However the church celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 September and Bernadette had attended mass. Also the nuns in Bernadette’s school often referred to the Virgin as immaculate.
Yet Mary was not the Immaculate Conception. It is not a person. The church taught Mary’s conception was immaculate because she was conceived without original sin – the stain on the soul of very new born baby since Adam and Eve ate the apple – only removed by baptism.
During 17th appearance on 7 April, the town doctor claimed to witness the miracle of Bernadette cupping a candle flame for 15 minutes without burning her hand. Others claimed Bernadette’s hand was nowhere near the flame.
The Virgin’s last appearance came some 3 months later on the 18 July. In June the Police Chief had barricaded the grotto, so Bernadette and the crowd knelt outside the fence by the riverbank. Bernadette declared ‘Our Lady’ looked more beautiful than ever.
While Bernadette is portrayed as an innocent child, girls around her age were at the center of the Pendle Hill Witch Trials in Lancashire and the Massachusetts Witch Trials. The Fox Sisters, who started modern spiritualism and even Joan of Arc were around her age.
Some claim Bernadette faked the whole thing for attention. They point to photographs taken a year or two later. Bernadette in studied pious poses. Despite being known for her humility there is no evidence she ever shied away from the public’s extreme adoration. Considered a living saint, people mobbed her, touching her, kissed both her and the ground she walked on.
The grotto was reopened to the public a few years later on the order of the Emperor Napoleon III. After the Virgin’s last appearance Bernadette never returned to it. In 1885 she joined a religious order, where she was very much kept in line by the Mother Superior who considered her something of a poisoned chalice.
Bernadette died in the convent at the age of 35 in 1879. As she was dying she claimed the devil was scaring her and only by calling on Jesus could she get rid of him. Mother Superior rather cynically put this down to Bernadette wanting to advertise herself as a saint. She was duly canonised.
After a century of losing face to rationalistic science in the wake of the French Revolution, Bernadette’s visions, and the subsequent Lourdes miracles, caused a resurgence of religious feeling and a fevered devotion to the Virgin Mary, the likes of which had not been seen since the Middle Ages.
After an absence of almost 500 years – the apparition of the Madonna in Guadalupe, Mexico City in 1531 – Lourdes signalled regular appearances by the Virgin: Pontmain, France (1871); Knock, Ireland (1879); Castelpetroso, Italy (1888); Fatima, Portugal (1916); Garabandal, Spain (1961); Zeitoun, Egypt (1968); and Medjugorje, Yugoslavia in 1981.