God’s Transforming Power in The Song of Bernadette

I watch The Song of Bernadette every year around the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (February 11).  Produced in 1943, the film stars Jennifer Jones, and won several Academy Awards.  The film, even though in black white, was one that I watched several times in my youth. Every time I watch the film, I walk away with a new insight. This year as I watched the film again as part of my annual ritual, I was most struck by the transforming power of our God present in the lives of many characters.  The change in characters was slow and gradual, but present as the viewer watches it unfold.  Here are the ways I noticed God’s transforming power in The Song of Bernadette:

Transforming the Grotto of Massabielle

The place where Mary appeared was a dump for medical wastes.  It seems these are the preferred places for Mary to appear, in unknown and humble places because no one would ever think a heavenly creature would visit a garbage dump, but that’s precisely where she comes.  Her apparitions transformed this place of filth into a beautiful place of healing, mercy, peace, and grace.

Millions of people have visited Lourdes, prayed at the grotto, and bathed in the miraculous healing waters.  God transformed the village of Lourdes, so that he could transform the hearts of many who visit.  Through the sacrament of Penance, hearts are moved to forgive those who have hurt them.  Through the miraculous waters of Lourdes, people receive the strength to carry on with their illness.  Praying at the grotto, pilgrims take comfort in the fact Mary is praying with and for them.  This all happens because God transformed the Grotto of Massabielle into a marvelous place of prayer where Aves to the Blessed Virgin echo in word and song.

Transforming Her Family

St. Bernadette’s family was poor.  They lived in the old prison which was uninhabitable for prisoners.  Their lives changed through the intervention of Our Lady.  By the film’s end, the unemployed François Soubirous finds a job with the help of the parish priest.

At the onset of the apparitions, the Soubirous family did not believe Bernadette’s account.  They even forbade Bernadette from returning to the grotto and wanted to send her to live with a relative in a nearby town.  The hearts of Francois and Louise slowly experienced transformation and an openness to the possibility of the miraculous in Bernadette’s life.  They accompanied Bernadette to the grotto for her apparitions.  And by the film’s end, her parents accepted the apparitions and her vocation to the convent.

Transforming Bernadette

The life of this young girl from Lourdes dramatically changed.  Bernadette went from being a young girl who did not know her catechism to being a person entrusted with a title of Mary, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  The un-catechized Bernadette receives her catechism lesson from the Blessed Virgin.  The seer who may not have been deemed fit for her First Eucharist, is prepared by Mary for the sacrament.  A young girl who considered the possibility of marriage, becomes open to the rigors of consecrated life.  Mary transformed the life of Bernadette by appearing to her and Bernadette allowed God’s transforming power to take a hold of her life.

Transforming the Parish Priest

Abbé Dominique Peyramale, the parish priest of Lourdes, experienced a transformation throughout the film.  At times a viewer might become upset with the way the priest addresses Bernadette (I know I did!).  Mary instructed Bernadette to go to Abbé Peyramale and make her request known for a Church and processions.  While Bernadette is speaking, the Abbé dismisses Bernadette and does not take her requests seriously.  Later in the film, Abbé Peyramale comes to Bernadette’s defense calling the local government hypocrites for the way they treat Bernadette. In his meeting with the bishop of Tarbes, the Abbé says Bernadette might in fact be “a vessel of grace and a worker of miracles.”  One of the most touching scenes of the film occurs when Bernadette leaves for the convent.  The exchange of the Abbé and her is impressionable, as he gives her the holy card she was denied at the beginning of the film.  And, in the movie portrayal, the priest visits Bernadette on her deathbed.    God transformed the heart of the parish priest of Lourdes, from one of the many skeptics to a believer and defender of the saintly visionary.

Transforming the Locals

In The Song of Bernadette, several miracles are on display.  Many people left in disbelief during on the apparitions when Bernadette started digging in the dirt and eating grass.  One man, blind in one eye, stayed and eventually discovered the miraculous spring of water.  He washed his face in the water and sight was restored to his eye.  Another local, whose child was saved a few times by Louise Soubirous, was now approaching death.  The priest was present to administer the Last Rites.  The mother, out of pure faith, takes the sickly and dying child to the miraculous spring of water, where he begins to cry and flail.  Throughout the rest of the film the young boy is featured in various stages of his life.  By the film’s end, some skeptics of the apparition realize they no longer can fight the apparition, and come to a point of belief.  The people of Lourdes experienced a transformation as they continued to see the power of God unveiled through the many miracles obtained through Our Lady’s intercession.

Transforming Sister Marie Therese Vauzou

Sister Marie Therese was stationed in Lourdes as a sister before being sent back to the motherhouse in Nevers. The portrayal of Sister Marie Therese would not make for a good vocation recruitment film for consecrated religious as she does not exude the joy of consecrated life, but rather displays a miserable existence.  She never believed the accounts of Bernadette, and when the young visionary enters the convent in Nevers, Sister Marie Therese served as her novice mistress.   She does anything in her power to make Bernadette’s life miserable, reprimanding her at any chance she gets, and always believing Bernadette is seeking worldly attention due to her life of notoriety from Lourdes.  Sister Marie Therese struggled with why God would choose Bernadette, and not someone like herself whose life was marked by suffering.  It would soon be revealed to Sister Marie Therese that Bernadette suffered much without complaint, leading Sister Marie Therese to repent of her past actions and ask God’s forgiveness in the chapel.  After this “come to Jesus” moment, Sister Marie Therese resolved to assist St. Bernadette for the rest of her life, taking it on as a penance.  One of the most moving scenes is when the novice-mistress carries Bernadette into the community recreation room.  The suffering and silent martyrdom of Bernadette transformed the heart of Sister Marie Therese.

Transforming You and Me

The Song of Bernadette displays God’s transforming power at work in many characters throughout the 2 hour and 38 minute film.  But the film has the power to transform you and me.  That is my testimony to the film.  When I was a teenager I found a copy of The Song of Bernadette and watched it many times.  It was a film I watched when I found it difficult to believe in God.  To watch the story of Bernadette brought renewal to my faith.  I watched it when I noticed that Marian devotion was lacking in my life.  It became a pick-me-up in those moments.  The film’s script has the power to transform our lives by calling to prayer and meditation.

If you haven’t seen The Song of Bernadette, I hope this month you’ll make time to watch it and allow the story of transformation to change your heart.  If you’ve already seen the film, watch it again, and see how God wants to speak to you through your most recent viewing.  The story of St. Bernadette shows God’s transforming power, and that is perhaps what our world needs today—God’s healing and transformation.

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Fr. Edward Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay in June 2015, and is an internationally recognized Marian theologian, writer, speaker, and radio personality. Author of the best-selling books, A Lenten Journey with Mother MaryA Heart Like Mary’s and A Rosary Litany, he has also written a prayer book for the only American-approved Marian apparition received by Adele Brise in 1859 in Champion, Wisconsin. He currently serves as Administrator of two rural Wisconsin parishes. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at the handle @FrEdwardLooney.

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