By Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.
February 11th marks the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we celebrate the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 at a grotto in Lourdes, France. In a series of 18 apparitions occurring over approximately five months, Mary spoke to Bernadette, but for a long time she did not even know it was the Blessed Mother. Bernadette later recounted all she had seen and heard, at one point saying, “She told me also that she did not promise to make me happy in this world, but in the next.”
What a weighty thing that must have been for a 14-year-old girl to hear. But it seems that God had prepared Bernadette to handle it. Her parents worked in a mill run by her father, but economic hardship brought on by an injury to her father caused him to lose the mill, plunging the family into poverty and forcing Bernadette to work rather than attend school to help the family survive.
When townspeople learned of the reported apparitions, crowds began to form around Bernadette whenever she visited the grotto, but the townspeople could not see or hear the apparitions. And when the Blessed Mother instructed Bernadette to drink from the spring, they only saw her drinking muddy water and began to ridicule her. Two days later, the spring, which had always been muddy, was producing crystal clear water, and soon the first of many healings took place in those waters.
When the Blessed Mother finally did reveal her identity to Bernadette, she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” but even then, Bernadette did not know what she meant and had to have it explained to her by others. The dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception had only been declared by the Church a few years earlier, and Bernadette was not well educated.
Bernadette eventually joined a religious order and died after several years of illness at the age of 35. On her deathbed, suffering from severe pain, she proclaimed, “All this is good for Heaven!” So, it seems Bernadette came to understand the role that suffering can play in our lives when we offer it up to God. She certainly did not want to suffer. Nobody does or should, yet sometimes we walk straight into situations that we know will cause us suffering, because we are trying to accomplish a greater good. This is certainly what happened to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for the cup to pass before finally facing His excruciating trial.
We all have moments when the question isn’t how we can avoid suffering but how we are to face it. Bernadette accepted the possibility that her reward would not be in this life but in the next. She did not run from what God was trying to accomplish through her presence at the grotto. It seems instead she focused on the promise of happiness in heaven.
Bernadette’s “yes” to God echoes Mary’s “yes” and Christ’s “yes” and the “yes” of all the saints who have come before or after her. It was a “yes” that placed God’s will above all else and what happened, as a result, was the transformation of that humble grotto carved from nature into one of the greatest sites for healing in history. May the world continue to flock to Lourdes for healing, and may we all pray for the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes for the courage to place God’s will above our own.
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