The town of Lourdes in southwestern France is one of the world’s most frequently-visited pilgrimage sites. Its tourist industry has fared well.  Every year, about five million people, of great or little faith, or of no faith, visit Lourdes.  Their reasons are varied.  Most seek physical healing, inner peace, conversion of heart, and if not for religious motives, then out of curiosity about the pilgrims who do make the arduous trek to the town nestled at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains.

From a French Trading Town to a World-Famous Pilgrimage Site

Over a five-month period, between February 11, 1858 and July 16, 1858, the market town of Lourdes with a population of 15,000, was transformed into a center of Catholic religious devotion that has since attracted world-wide attention.  From that year on, the life of Bernadette Soubirous, a teenager whose peasant family lived in extreme poverty, was forever changed.  

One Sunday after Mass, Bernadette was gathering firewood in a secluded area near her home.  She narrates: “Suddenly I heard a kind of rustling sound.  I turned my head toward the field by the side of the river, but the trees seemed quite still, and the noise was evidently not from them.  Then I looked up and caught sight of the cave where I saw a lady wearing a lovely white dress with a bright belt.  On top of each of her feet was a pale yellow rose, the same color as her rosary beads.” (Liturgy of the Hours I, Office of Readings for Saint Marie Bernadette Soubirous, 1375)

It was the first of eighteen apparitions Bernadette was to experience.  A few days later, she, her sister, and some other girls returned to the grotto. She was the only one to see the vision and fell into a trance.  One week later on February 18th, she said that the lady asked her to return to the grotto every day for the next two weeks.  The townspeople assumed the lady to be the Virgin Mary, but Bernadette refused to give her a name other than “the lady.”

On February 24th of the next week, the lady instructed Bernadette to bathe and drink from cold, muddy water!  “When I got to it,” she narrates, “I could only find a few drops, mostly mud.  I cupped my hands to catch some liquid without success, and then I started to scrape the ground.  I managed to find a few drops of water but only at the fourth attempt was there enough for any kind of drink” (Ibid., 1376).  

On the next day, the waters began to spring up and flow, all-fresh and clean.  Since then, thousands have bathed in that spring water, linked with miraculous healings.  

One month later on March 24th, the lady instructed Bernadette to have a chapel built in honor of her.  On the following day, March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, the lady identified herself as the Immaculate Conception after church officials had prompted Bernadette to ask the lady her name.  Bernadette did not understand the meaning of the two words, Immaculate Conception, even though the Church had defined the dogma four years earlier in 1854.  Today, the Church celebrates the feast of that lady, Our Lady of Lourdes.

When she was twenty-two, Bernadette Soubirous entered the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction of Neverre despite the fact that she suffered from asthma and other debilitating ailments.  She remained there doing menial tasks until her death at thirty-five.  She was canonized in 1933.

Miraculous Cures

Since pilgrimages to Lourdes began in the last half of the nineteenth century, five thousand cures are known to have taken place.  Fifty-eight have been declared miraculous by Church officials though unofficially as many as seventy have been reported.    

“The Song of Bernadette”    

In 1944, Jennifer Jones won an Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous in the film, “The Song of Bernadette.”  The motion picture won three other Oscars: for best picture, best music, and best cinematography. Franz Werfel directed the movie.  As a Jew, he was drawn to Catholic sensibilities.  Years later, he became a Catholic.  Just after 1938, Werfel and his wife Alma, the widow of Gustav Mahler, had to flee Nazi Germany, and in Lourdes, they were befriended for several weeks.  In this country, Werfel wrote and published a novelized version about Lourdes entitled The Song of Bernadette, which then became the motion picture.

One Dogma with Two Emphases

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. The dogma states that the Mother of God was “from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin.”  

The dogma is not found explicitly in Scripture however.  But among the Eastern Christian Churches, according to their own ancient traditions, they had already celebrated the same dogma on December 9th under the title:  “The Maternity of Anne, the Mother of the Mother of God.”  The power of God extends over the powers of this world, and where Mary is concerned, this truth is fully realized.  In fact, it is emphasized because Anne and her husband Joachim had been childless into advanced age.  According to a second-century record, Joachim was not permitted to offer sacrifice in the temple because he had produced no progeny.  He and Anne promised to dedicate a child to God if they were blessed with one.  When Anne did conceive, the fruit of her womb would be offered as a gift to God.  Mary was that gift.  

The following two prayers of the Christian East refer to the feast as “The Maternity of St. Anne.”  

“The  soul of the Virgin Mary whom God had chosen from all eternity to be the Mother in the flesh of the Incarnate Word was created full of grace and free from original sin, united to a body formed according to the laws of nature through the operation of love of her parents, Joachim and Anne.” (Troparion)

“Today the universe rejoices, for Anne has conceived the Mother of God in a manner provided by God Himself:  for Anne has borne the One who is to give birth to the Word in a manner beyond all telling.” (Kontakion; Most Rev. Joseph Raya, Byzantine Daily Worship, 537) Thus, in the Eastern Churches, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Lord is placed in a wider biblical and genealogical context.

Mother: A Word with Multiple Levels of Meaning

We know that mothers may be described in different ways, especially by their children, for example in the film, “I Remember Mama.”  Since mother is a primordial word, your mother and my mother participate in the universal understanding of motherhood.  

What of the Mother of God?  From the early Church, she is a constant and ubiquitous presence in liturgical worship and in devotional prayer.  In the Liturgy of the Hours there is a classical prayer available for every major Hour that venerates the Mother of God.

In the Christian East, the liturgical Office of Praise of the Mother of God (Acathist Hymn) sets forth a litany of praise that exalts the mystery of the Incarnation in its fullness:  the miraculous maternity and perpetual virginity of Mary.  Here Mary is admired with admiration of God’s condescension, wisdom, and power in using her womb to hold and enclose the Word who took her flesh.

Mary is the softer face of God, even the feminine face of God.  Poets have exalted her as the exemplar of all women, “the eternal feminine,” whether she is named Mary, Maura, Mariah, Miriam, or the Madonna.  

The Mother of God has been the subject of the sculptor’s hands, the artist’s brush, the iconographer’s contemplative gaze, and the composer’s musical imagination.  Women and men bear her name.  Cities, towns, villages, churches, and chapels wear her name.  Her image is burnished on the facades of cathedrals, homes, and walls of Italian towns.  Virtually every country has claimed her for its own. Whatever her feast, whatever the country, Mary transcends all and belongs to all.  Visit the lower level of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and you will see in one nation’s chapel after the other the many faces of Our Lady.  Yet it is only one face, universally recognized.

Mary is the ‘second Eve,’ the Theotokos, that is, the one who bore God, the mother of Christ’s humanity, the paragon of chastity, the mater dolorosa, the mater gloriosa, the woman clothed with the sun, the queen of heaven, the daughter of Zion.  Often she assumes a majestic reserve and a certain detachment as she sits on her throne, symbolizing ‘the seat of wisdom.’  As the mother of the redeemer, she was preserved from being touched by sin.  She is not an inaccessible goddess but a mother, sister, or friend who stands before her son to plead for us when, like the hosts at Cana wedding, we have no more wine to give (Jn. 2:3).

Mary is that lovely rose which Bernadette describes and of which the Jesuit-poet Daniel Berrigan, S.J. writes:

. . .
So the rose is its own credential, a certain
unattainable form: wearing its heart
visibly, it gives us heart too: bud, fulness and fall.

Time without Number, 10.