When I told my wife I was going to write about St. Bernadette, she asked what I would say. I don’t think she believed me when I answered, “I’m going to say she isn’t my kind of saint.” But I meant it.
For one thing, I’m a man! My go-to saints are the manly ones like St. Sebastian or St. Michael. Give me the armored saint, the warrior, the soldier riddled with arrows. I don’t have time for a saint who did nothing but see something while praying the Rosary. If I’m going to to worry about a Rosary-praying saint, I’d rather have St. Nicholas of Flue who counted his beads while wielding a sword in battle!
Secondly, I foolishly like to think of myself as an intellectual, a pseudo-academic. I’m a convert to Catholicism who crossed the Tiber after reading the Church Fathers. In a way, my conversion began as a mental consent after carefully considering the arguments for and against the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve never thought of myself as very feelings-oriented and I’m more of a thinker than a mystic. So, I like to imagine myself as more of a Blessed John Henry Newman than a St. Bernadette of Lourdes.
This is, of course, absurd. But, it can be difficult for someone like me to see the importance of someone like St. Bernadette.
From a worldly perspective, Bernadette had little to offer. The oldest of nine children, she was born into poverty. Her large family lived in a one-room basement which had once been a jail. The dank conditions couldn’t have helped alleviate her many illnesses, including asthma which she suffered from her whole life. On several occasions her poor health brought her so close to death that she received last rites. Bernadette was also uneducated, not even learning to read and write until adulthood.
Ignorant and sickly, what could this child offer the world? What could she offer God? And what could I possibly learn from her? I’m certainly not alone in this cynicism. At the time, when others found out what Bernadette claimed to have seen, she was met with skepticism and ridicule. Her mother beat her. The local police threatened to arrest her. Many assumed she was mentally-ill. It’s hard to blame them for their incredulity.
Little Bernadette first saw the apparition on February 11th, 1858 while gathering firewood with her sister and one other girl. When she sat down on a grotto, a “beautiful lady” appeared only to her. Bernadette returned everyday for a fortnight and the lady appeared a total of 18 times. The lady was silent until the third appearance when she asked Bernadette to continue returning to the grotto. On her ninth appearance, the apparition instructed Bernadette to drink from a place in the rock. She did so and, the next day, a spring began to flow freely. Only on her 16th appearance did the lady identify herself, shockingly, as the Immaculate Conception. By the end of the apparitions, thousands came to witness the event but, still, Bernadette was the only one to see the vision. The authorities tried to prevent people from coming to the grotto, going so far as to fence off the area and hand out fines for those talking about it. But Bernadette could still kneel from a distance and see Our Lady “more beautiful than ever.”
Soon, the Church looked into the matter and what Bernadette received was proven true. Not only did the apparition stand up to canonical investigation, but the healings others experienced in the waters which sprang from the sight of the apparition were proven miraculous. Perhaps most importantly, Our Lady of Lourdes also affirmed what Pope Pius IX defined as dogma only four years earlier in 1854, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Little Bernadette couldn’t have understood the significance of this when the “beautiful lady” told her in Bernadette’s native tongue, Gascon , “Que sòi era Immaculada Concepciou” (I am the Immaculate Conception). This powerful confirmation of a deep theological truth was given not to scholar in Rome but to a poor peasant who couldn’t even write the words down.
So, why would the Holy Mother of God appear in a backwater town to a poor, uneducated girl? Bernadette said of herself, “The Blessed Virgin chose me only because I was the most ignorant.” It wasn’t really her ignorance, of course, but her humility. Bernadette never looked to herself and so was able to see clearly the Blessed Mother. She knew she had nothing to offer and so was able to receive abundantly. Through Bernadette, Our Holy Mother reminds us of the truth of Christ’s words, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Bernadette became a nun and died young at the age of 35. Even before she died, a steady stream of pilgrims were visiting the site of her encounter with the Virgin Mary. A basilica was built near the grotto and Bernadette was declared a saint in 1933. Today, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes holds several churches, chapels, and many hotels to accommodate the millions of visitors every year. Certainly, little Bernadette never imagined or aspired to these things. Her life was defined by simple devotion, obedience to Mary, and, above all, humility.
And that’s why St. Bernadette of Lourdes is exactly the kind of saint someone like me needs. Those of us still laboring under the illusion that we have strength or wit or wisdom to offer the Lord must learn that God doesn’t need these things at all. Our strength is weakness and our wisdom is folly. We have nothing to offer God and he asks nothing but childlike faith and simple obedience. St. Bernadette may not be the kind of saint I immediately identify with but she is the kind of saint I must emulate.