Monday, April 16, 2012

Happy Birthday to Pope Benedict and St. Bernadette

In addition to being Pope Benedict's 85th birthday, today we celebrate the birthday into heaven of our dear St. Bernadette, who went to the house of the Father on this day in 1879.

Marie Bernarde (Bernadette) Soubirous was a very poor, unsophisticated, peasant girl. She was born January 7, 1844, and baptized the next day.

Bernadette was sensitive, with a pleasant and humble disposition, but, perhaps due to her poverty, she was undersized, and often physically weak due to asthma. Marie (Aravant) Laguës, foster-mother, said, "As a baby, Bernadette was already very loveable, the neighbors loved to see her and to hold her in their arms." Further,
"Bernadette, in spite of the tiredness which was caused by her shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing, always appeared happy and cheerful. She never gave us any trouble, she took what she was given, and appeared happy. We loved her very much as well."
Abbé Pène, Curate of the Parish of Lourdes in 1858, said that "everything about Bernadette radiated naïveté, simplicity, goodness."

In this sweet innocence and goodness, Bernadette was also widely thought to be backward and slow, including in her ability to learn the faith. By age 14, she still had not made her First Holy Communion. Her teacher, Jean Barbet, reported that
"Bernadette has difficulty to retain the Catechism word by word, because she cannot study, she does not know how to read, but she puts a lot of care into the appropriate meaning of the explanations. Besides, she is very attentive, above all very pious and modest."
Marie Laguës likewise stated,
"It was useless to for me to repeat my lessons; I always had to begin again. Sometimes I was overcome by impatience and I would throw my book aside and say to her, 'Go along, you will never be anything but a little fool.'"
Meanwhile, that era saw the rise of various corrosive secular humanist ideologies, including an exaggerated exultation of science against religion. France, in particular, was rampant with anti-clericalism, with substantial hostility being expressed toward the Catholic Church by the intellectual elite.

Young Bernadette, though, knew nothing of these ideologies and controversies. It was in her simple life that, on February 11, 1858, a Lady in White appeared to the 14-year-old Bernadette at Massabielle, a grotto on the bank of the Gave River near Lourdes, France. The Lady was young and no larger than Bernadette's own diminutive stature. Bernadette later recounted:
"I heard a sound like a gust of wind. . . . As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot."
On this first apparition, the Lady asked the girl to make the sign of the Cross piously and say the rosary with her. Bernadette saw the Lady, whom she called "Aquéro" (meaning "that" or "the one" in her native Pyrenees dialect), take the rosary that was hanging from her arms into her hands. This was repeated in subsequent apparitions. There were 18 appearances in all, lasting from February 11 to July 16, 1858.

During the visions, the Lady requested prayer and penitence, asked for the construction of a new church and a procession, and led Bernadette to a fresh water spring that is believed to have miraculous healing powers. Despite strong doubt and even opposition from political and church officials, including being detained for a time and questioned by the local police, Bernadette's faith in what she had witnessed remained steadfast and humble.

At first, the Lady did not identify herself, despite being asked. Although others were quick to identify her as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bernadette expressly did not make that claim, continuing instead to refer to her as "Aquéro" or "the Lady." However, Bernadette reports that, at the 16th appearance,
"The Lady was standing above the rose-tree, in a position very similar to that shown in the miraculous medal. At my third request her face became very serious and she seemed to bow down in an attitude of humility. Then she joined her hands and raised them to her breast . . . She looked up to heaven . . . then slowly opening her hands and leaning forward towards me, she said to me in a voice vibrating with emotion, 'Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou' (I am the Immaculate Conception)."
Before that time, Bernadette had not heard of the words, much less the doctrine of, "Immaculate Conception," which itself is grounded in simple humility and grace. And even when she heard the words, she did not know what they meant.

Some of these happenings took place in the presence of many people, but no one besides Bernadette claimed to see or hear the Lady, and there was no disorder or emotional extravagance. However, reports of miraculous cures occurring at the grotto spread quickly and the more they spread, the greater the number of people who visited Massabielle. These included pious believers, sick people desperate for cures, curiosity seekers, skeptics and scoffers.

The publicity given these miraculous events and the manifest sincerity and innocence of the girl on the one hand, and the compelling need to protect the faith and the faithful from the scandal of fraudulent claims on the other, made it necessary for the Bishop of Tarbes, Bertrand Severe Laurence, to institute a judicial inquiry as to the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the apparitions. This inquiry required Bernadette to submit to intense questioning on multiple occasions. And, during those sessions, as had happened in the interrogation by the local magistrate during the apparitions, the ecclesiastical questioners would occasionally try to trap Bernadette or trick her into contradicting herself or otherwise show that she was lying or delusional. Each time they did this, however, Bernadette only proved herself to be more credible and sincere.

Four years later, he declared the apparitions to be supernatural and worthy of belief, and public veneration of the Immaculate Conception in the grotto was allowed. Bishop Laurence said of Bernadette,
"The testimony of the young girl is in every way as satisfactory as possible. To begin with, her sincerity cannot be doubted. Who that has questioned her can fail to admire the simplicity, the candour, the modesty of this child? Whilst everyone is talking about the wonders which have been revealed to her, she alone keeps silence. She only speaks when she is questioned and then she recounts everything without affectation and with a touching simplicity, and she replies to the numerous questions addressed to her without hesitation, giving answers clear and precise, very much to the point and bearing the stamp of intense conviction. She has been tested most severely but no menaces have ever shaken her; she has responded to the most generous offers by a noble disinterestedness. She never contradicts herself; in all the different examinations which she has undergone, her story never varies; she never adds to it or takes away from it. Bernadettes sincerity cannot then be disputed. we may add that it never has been disputed; even her opponents, when she has had opponents, have paid her that homage."
Soon the requested chapel was erected, and since that time numberless pilgrims come every year to Lourdes to fulfill promises or to beg graces.

For some years after, in addition to her poor health, Bernadette suffered greatly from the suspicious disbelief of some and the tactless enthusiasm, insensitive attentions, and outright harassment by others. Sometimes people would ask her to bless or touch some religious object of theirs, such as a rosary, and when she declined to do so, they would try to trick her into touching the object by feigning to accidentally dropping it on the ground, hoping that she would then pick it up for them. Bernadette bore these trials of her unwanted celebrity with impressive patience and dignity, although there were times when it frustrated her. She was especially uncomfortable with those who treated her as holy,
"They think I'm a saint . . . When I'm dead, they'll come and touch holy pictures and rosaries to me, and all the while I'll be getting broiled on a grill in purgatory. At least promise me you'll pray a lot for the repose of my soul."
Bernadette never sought publicity or name and fame, and she did not enjoy it when these things came, but despite the occasional giving into annoyance, overall, she bore those burdens with great grace. In her private notes, she wrote,
"I must die to myself continually and accept trials without complaining. I work, I suffer and I love with no other witness than his heart. Anyone who is not prepared to suffer all for the Beloved and to do his will in all things is not worthy of the sweet name of Friend, for here below, Love without suffering does not exist. . . .
"I shall spend every moment loving. One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them."
Besides, the Lady had told Bernadette on the third apparition,"I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next."

In 1866, she was admitted to the convent of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers, France. Here, Sister Marie-Bernarde was more sheltered from trying publicity, but not from the “stuffiness” of the convent superiors nor from the tightening grip of asthma.

“I am getting on with my job,” she would say. “What is that?” someone asked. “Being ill,” was the reply. Thus she lived out her self-effacing life, dying at the age of 35.

The events of 1858 resulted in Lourdes becoming one of the greatest pilgrim shrines in the history of Christendom. But St. Bernadette took no part in these developments; nor was it for her visions that she was canonized, but for the humble simplicity and religious trusting that characterized her whole life.

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